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"The Shins will change your life!" That kind of proclamation is loaded with expectations when it's just one friend talking up a band to another, but it's magnified a thousandfold when Natalie Portman says it in a hit movie. The band's popularity was already growing steadily with each album they released, but Garden State took them to another level entirely — if anyone's life was changed by that praise-filled cameo, it was the Shins'. The expectations and pressure that the Garden State effect brought could've been too much for any band, especially a delicate, wistful one like the Shins. Though they took a little while to deliver a new album, Wincing the Night Away shows that time was well spent. Neither a retread nor a radical departure — nor, thankfully, a conscious attempt at making "life-changing" music — the album is a mix of quintessentially Shins songs and tracks that take their sound in subtly different directions. Wincing's clean, borderline slick production is the main concession to the band's post-Garden State fame, but this just makes joyfully sad songs like "Australia" and "Turn on Me" sound like nods to jangly '80s indie instead of jangly '60s guitar pop. "Phantom Limb," Wincing the Night Away's single, is the closest the album comes to the Shins-by-numbers that some fans feared this album would be in the wake of their mainstream success, though the strange, soaring chord change that leads into the chorus keeps things from being too predictable. Actually, many of the album's best moments show how the Shins' music has progressed: "Sleeping Lessons" begins and defines Wincing the Night Away, moving from shimmery opening keyboards to strummy acoustic guitars to a rousing, electrified finish. "Black Wave" is another standout, a stark ballad with chilly layers of electronic textures surrounding James Mercer's plaintive vocals, and "Split Needles" continues this dark, dreamy, synth-heavy feel. The band ventures even farther from familiar territory with "Sea Legs"' slinky beat and funky bassline, and with "Red Rabbits"' keyboards, which sound like a cross between dripping water and steel drums. These experiments never feel contrived, and never get in the way of the vulnerable heart of the Shins' music (which beats loudest on the hopeful album closer, "A Comet Appears"). Wincing the Night Away is the sound of the Shins acknowledging where they've been and moving on to new territory, and while it probably won't change your life, it probably will make it more enjoyable — and, most likely, that's all the Shins wanted to do in the first place. -AMG
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