It's no wonder James Mercer's been having a hard time sleeping. His band's been in trouble since Natalie Portman slapped a pair of headphones on Zach Braff in Garden State and told him the band would change his life. How do you follow that?
The Portland-based indie pop quartet has been quiet since their second record (a commercial failure), as Mercer's fought insomnia and a pretty heavy psychic/musical weight, but they're back now. It was worth the wait.
Mercer sounds more confident than ever on Wincing, as the band explores a palette of new sounds (hard-driving guitar here, some Pet Sounds there). From the opening tune -- the dreamy but ultimately exuberant "Sleeping Lessons" -- to the closing seconds, the band sounds in control. The production's crisper. The guitar lines are less tentative. There are moments of weakness, but it's clear that the years since Garden State have at least changed the Shins' lives. For the better.
-- JOEL SMITH
DOWNLOAD: "Sleeping Lessons"
Talib Kweli and Madlib
Talib Kweli -- he of Blackstar, Reflection Eternal and Chappelle's Show fame -- has tapped prolific beat-genius Madlib for what has become a staple in hip-hop record release scheduling: the obligatory pre-album mixtape. Ostensibly serving as a warning shot to Kweli's upcoming Eardrum full-length, Liberation's nine original tracks hang together well enough to be considered a coherent EP. Potent guest shots from Consequence, Strong Arm Steady and Candice Anderson further elevate the material to EP status.
Madlib supplies a few bangers of exceptionally Dilla-tastic splendor, but also a few weirdly alienating explorations that are more admirable than listenable. The rub? The thing is free for download at www.rappcats.com along with extremely dope cover art. How can you complain about that? Well, I'm sure you could find a way if you tried, but nobody can deny that two of the underground's finest thoughtfully making free music for their fans is never a bad thing.