By Bliss Bowen 01/25/2007
THE SHINS, Wincing the Night Away (SubPop): There's a solidity and craft to the Seattle-based indie-rockers' third outing signaling they've not only arrived, they're sticking around. You can still namecheck influences (Echo & the Bunnymen, XTC, Beach Boys), but what's more interesting are the intriguing arrangements drawing out the layers in bandleader James Mercer's smart, chewy pop tunes: the dreamy echoes vaporized by thundering drums in “Sleeping Lessons,” the sing-along harmonies of “Phantom Limb,” the hip-hop underpinnings of “Sea Legs,” the acidic “Turn on Me” contrasting with the childlike, lap steel-triggered whimsy of “Red Rabbits.” www.theshins.com
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Endless Highway: Music of The Band (149 Music): Finally, a tribute (in stores Tuesday) that captures some of the spirit of the original while demonstrating understanding of its inspirations and legacy. Death Cab for Cutie, Guster, Trevor Hall, Steve Reynolds, Gomez and Jackie Greene show Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson's collective influence spreads far beyond Americana, while the Jakob Dylan-Lizz Wright duet “Whispering Pines” and Rosanne Cash's insightful delivery of “The Unfaithful Servant” movingly underscore the potency of The Band's songwriting, and My Morning Jacket revive the heartache Danko's “It Makes No Difference” almost as beautifully as Danko himself. Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic, Josh Turner, the Allman Brothers and Bruce Hornsby also contribute tracks.
SIGNAL HILL TRANSMISSION , An Empty Space (P.A. Juice): Good news from the local music front: This indie-rock quartet gets better with each release. They've traded in earlier, rootsier flourishes for shimmering production, harmonies and more agitated guitars. Whether floating “Pipe Dream” on melodic waves of pretty fingerpicking, riffing to the '70s on “Alright,” doggedly pledging to “get by with or without you” over the title track's stubborn beat, bopping wistfully to the nostalgic “Cherry Is a Girl” or closing with a ringing finish on “Ordinary,” they're clearly paying more allegiance to R.E.M., Paul Westerberg and Elliott Smith than Uncle Tupelo. www.signalhilltransmission.comBILL KIRCHEN, Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods (Proper American): Ex-Commander Cody guitarist Kirchen seems to be re-evaluating his rep for wicked guitar solos and humor. His newest release (in stores Tuesday) skirts cornpone kitsch with “Get a Little Goner,” but generally tones down Tele twang for more soulful approaches that may surprise fans of past over-the-top performances like “Hot Rod Lincoln.” With subtle support from bassist Nick Lowe and keyboardist Geraint Watkins, plus guesting Hacienda Brothers, Kirchen seems surprisingly focused on his vocals. Standout track: a slow-groove R&B reinvention of the Bruce Springsteen/Mitch Ryder rock chestnut “Devil With the Blue Dress.” www.properamerican.com