"Wincing the Night Away," the Shins
I suspect the real reason the Shins' blend of loner vocals, forlorn lyrics and winding, sparkling arrangements appeals to folks ranging from Edward Gorey devotees to the grungy, dreadlocked white Rasta who shoved me on the subway (he had a Shins patch on his messenger bag) is that they solidly hit so many of the sonic signifiers of pop music made for the acne'd, the alone and the artistic. You've got James Mercer's vocals -- clean and full of longing falsetto jumps -- and his lyrics, which do a great job saying "I love you" or "I miss you" without stooping to actually saying either. Then there's the music, which on "Wincing" -- the band's third album -- continues to shine with the same bright luster as richly melodic '60s-era guitar bands like the Byrds and mope with the infectious melancholy of loner faves like R.E.M. and the Cure. Most of the new disc will please their brokenhearted faithful, but it's when the band tries to beef up their sound with distortion and meandering twiddly bits that the music deflates. The useless sketch of dissonant guitar fuzz that is "Pam Berry" and the paper prog grandiosity of "Sea Legs" suggest a band insecure about being perceived as wimpy -- as if we wanted them to be anything else. There's also a bit too much lyrical bluster for a band that lives on the line between finely etched and overwrought. (For example, "We've pissed on far too many good intentions held by clever sprites" -- don't you hate when that happens?) Ever so slightly, "Wincing" reeks of a band with a mild case of "art-up-the-butt."
That aside, "Wincing" is a strong album. "Australia" is a blissfully buzzed pop jam, "Phantom Limb" achieves a kind of awkward grace, and the nerdy poetry of the glimmering and lithe "A Comet Appears" will more than satisfy the freaks, geeks and white Rastas. Which is to say, almost everyone.
Favorite Track: "Phantom Limb"
"Ce," Caetano Veloso
As a famous and politically active musician since the late 1960s and a key figure in the politics-meets-Pop Art movement that was Tropicalia, Caetano Veloso occupies a position in Brazilian culture similar to the one occupied on this side of the equator by both Bob Dylan and the Beatles. The kaleidoscopic array of styles and madcap songwriting that the 64-year-old Veloso displays on "Ce" should set the ex-Beatles and the current Bob on edge -- it has more vitality and diversity than the English-speaking world's hallowed heroes seem capable of mustering these days. Be warned, though: Veloso makes no concessions to non-Portuguese speakers. If you can get past the fact that you don't understand anything, you'll be dazzled by the music's creativity and spirit. And just between you and me, I went online and looked up the words to "Rocks" -- my favorite song on the album -- and I liked its go-go new wave melody and wild, careening guitar solo a lot more when I didn't know that "Chegou com a boca roxa de botox/ exigindo rocks" just means: "It arrived with a purple mouth of botox demanding rocks."
Favorite Track: "Rocks"
"Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?" Of Montreal
Coming in hands-down the best packaging I've seen in a long time (you'll get the munchies just looking at it), the music on "Hissing Fauna" matches its trippy presentation. An offshoot of the Athens, Ga., musical collective Elephant 6 -- which spawned other totally far out neo-psychedelic bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control -- Of Montreal specialize in an extravagantly dense and self-aware brand of fuzz rock that comes across like the Cars dipped in a bucket of acid. This is an album to be enjoyed by you and your headphones on a night when you don't have to worry about waking up early.
Favorite Track: "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger"