Friday, June 18, 2010

album of the day: Wincing the Night Away

Is angsty pop-rock really necessary? What happens when angsty pop-rock grows up?

The Shins offer answers to these questions in this 2007 release. The first is, yes. Whether you think so or not. The reasons angsty pop-rock is necessary are basically twofold. As a civilization, we're still producing new generations of angsty teens and young adults. That happens when people reproduce, apparently. Plus, somebody's got to give vent to melodramatic emotion, which, it would seem, continues to exist as a psychological and cultural phenomenon.

The answer to the second is, it doesn't. And that's the way it should be.

"Australia" is what hooked me. I was downloading Shins tunes, following a musical hunch, looking for new stuff, and the first one I started to grasp was this one, brimming with energy. Not every track had the same bounce and spirit, but everything I found felt alert, upright, anxious and at attention. Not just energy, but welled-up, tensed energy, ready to spring.

(Which, along with the band's name, reminds me of an elementary school playground game we used to play. It was our own version of those games where you throw an inflated rubber ball at someone, and if you hit them, they were "out." Some people call this game "dodge ball" or "battle ball." In fourth grade we played this against a brick wall of our school, on a strip of grass about 10 feet deep and 30 feet long. The players lined up right against the wall, and the pitcher would hurl a baseball at the players' shins. Those who were hit were "out." To say the least.)

The first several times through "Australia," I didn't really catch the lyrics, except for the very end: "starved of oxygen/ so give me your hand/ and let's jump out the window." And I thought, well, that's rather an odd sentiment at the conclusion of such a catchy tune.

Turns out, the dark expression of the theme - it's actually more about breaking free of restrictions or repressions - is common to the whole album. For instance, in describing a quintessential angsty moment - making the fateful decision to fall into tangled sex - in "Sealegs": "when that dead moon rises again/ be no time to stall or protocol to hem us in darling." (Morrissey, I'm thinking. The Smiths are still hanging around.)

Perhaps a question for another time is why I seem to need angsty pop-rock. Cuz I do.

On the other hand, the Shins have become mainstream in their popularity after crossover media exposure, and thus have lost at least 90% of their credibility among the angst-ridden demographic their stuff would seem to be perfectly suited to. No doubt that demographic have moved on to something else. With any luck, the Shins won't drink the Kool-Aid, become flaccid, and go on to years of impotent but lucrative popularity.

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