Success can be a bad break for some rock bands, especially those that prefer scribbling in the margins, unobtrusive and unassuming. The Shins' debut album, Oh, Inverted World, was a determinedly small-time affair, working in the muted watercolors of '60s British Invasion pop and cosmic Americana, but the follow-up, Chutes Too Narrow, was bolder in style and songwriting, and about as good as rock albums get. It was confident, but never overbearing, and with the help of strong word of mouth—including an unexpected nod in an unexpected indie-film hit—The Shins became the rare indie-rock band that nearly everyone loved.
Inevitably, The Shins' third album, Wincing The Night Away, feels like a retreat, though at least it isn't the kind of overly fussy, overly ambitious record that some minor-league bands make when they break into the bigs. Wincing has its share of sketchy experiments that never cohere, like "Sea Legs," a tinny, overly spare attempt to combine '80s Britpop with hip-hop. But mainly, the new disc is just more tentative than Chutes Too Narrow, with a lot of songs—like the first single, "Phantom Limb"—sounding like foggier, heavier versions of what The Shins have done before.
That isn't true of the entire record, though. The album-opener, "Sleeping Lessons," is one of the best songs bandleader James Mercer has written: a bracing, straighten-up folkie rant that comes disguised first as atmospheric abstraction, and then as punchy club-rock. The freeform, Love-like ballad "Red Rabbits" and the briskly twangy "Turn On Me"—both of which rely on Mercer's pretzel melodies and conversational cadence—can stand with the best of Chutes and Inverted. And The Shins find a workable new approach on "Black Wave" and "Spilt Needles," where Mercer's darker moods and the band's low-boil textured noise sound as anxious and queasy as a man in a waiting room. On those songs, plus the charmingly chiming "Girl Sailor," The Shins shake off the paralysis of expectation.