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Extra Effort And An 'Ooh-Ooh' Chorus

The Shins.
Courtesy of the artist
The Shins.

James Mercer may have formed The Shins under modest circumstances — as a side project to a band, Flake Music, that virtually no one has even heard of — but the group got about as big as independent pop acts get these days. After two hit albums, not to mention dream placement in the hit movie Garden State, The Shins' name equals both cachet and major media attention.

And yet, for all that, the band's artistic ambitions continue to seem fairly modest. The fine new Wincing the Night Away is built of the same solid stuff that made its predecessors famous: lush pop melodies, rich harmonies, vaguely obtuse lyrics, and sly, sideways hooks. It also features a gorgeous, brightly swooning ringer in "Phantom Limb," which features the first big "ooh-ooh" chorus in a year that, in a just world, will be full of them.

As on many Shins songs, the words seem like an afterthought on "Phantom Limb" (when they can be parsed at all), but that doesn't matter much when the window dressing sounds this sublime. Like their spiritual cousins in The New Pornographers, Mercer and company take the time to stuff their songs with many discrete, memorable hooks: Well past the four-minute mark, "Phantom Limb" continues to dole out new melodies — the sort that would anchor entire songs in other hands. Like the best power-pop players, The Shins' members make extra effort a major ingredient, with considerable energy devoted to concealing it.

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)