The Shins, singled out

The Shins

Phantom Limb-Single

Sub Pop Records

Four-and-a-half out of five stars

The Shins are a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde outfit-if there was any doubt, the recently released Phantom Limb-Single (two tracks previewing what’s to come on the band’s much-talked-about third record, due out in January) squashes it.

On a given day, it’s always been just as fair to expect James Mercer and his cohorts to channel the hallucinatory ghosts of Phil Specter and Brian Wilson as Modest Mouse and The Pixies. Both of The Shins’ previous two albums-2001’s bedroom-spacey Oh, Inverted World and 2003’s gravitational Chutes Too Narrow-have contained portions of The Shins’ dual personas: part charmer, part rock monster.

However, there was a distinct shift in the distribution of parts between the two.

Oh, Inverted World leaned toward the contemplative, the interior-an album made up primarily of airy, loose, meandering guitars and dreamy basement vocals. Tracks like “Caring is Creepy,” “New Slang,” “Pressed in a Book” and “Past and Pending” established The Shins as a kind of contemporary Byrds; a band working to craft evocative, melodic melodrama-and succeeding remarkably.

On the other end of the spectrum was 2003’s equally excellent Chutes Too Narrow, a marked departure from the chilly outer-space-meets-Antarctica soundscape of Oh, Inverted.

Chutes was a busy, almost urban-feeling (inasmuch as it FELT a lot like an album formed from pipes and streets and lamps) album. While the record opened with a more conventional Shins cut (the impossibly catchy “Kissing the Lipless”), it made its distinguishing mark with a move toward the rock, away from the roll. “Mine’s Not a High Horse,” “Fighting in a Sack,” “Saint Simon,” “Gone For Good”-all signified a willingness on The Shins’ part to embrace faster tempos, less-produced productions and Mercer’s unique vocals, placing the latter front and center like bands used to.

But this is important: People forget that Oh, Inverted was not ALL threadbare charm, and Chutes was not ALL hook-driven steam. They both had a little of both, in rations of about 70-30/30-70, respectively.

If Phantom Limb is any true indication of the direction The Shins are taking on their new album, the band is stabilizing: The Jekyll/Hyde personalities occur here in equal measure.

Granted, this isn’t some big epiphany: Phantom Limb is a single, and most singles have only two tracks. One is softer, one is not. This is standard practice. But, for a band with a split personality like The Shins, the equal occasion of two dynamically different songs is interesting, nonetheless.

The good news is, both the rock and the roll on Phantom are superb-better even perhaps than The Shins’ previous efforts.

The title track bears resemblance to Oh, Inverted World, with its fluid-sea changes in tenor and pop-perfect hooks, while the alternate version of “Split Needles” is a Chutes-y selection, focused and lean, though never distancing-which is pretty much the operational dynamic that makes The Shins’ up-tempo selections so unique.

“Phantom Limb” picks up where “Kissing The Lipless” left off, picking up the R.E.M/shoe-gazer cue and synthesizing it with a fresh mix of sun and sand. When Mercer sings, “This is that foreign land/ Of the sprayed-on tan/ And it all feels fiiiine,” chills run up listeners’ necks-it’s like seeing a California sunset in Iceland. Something else.

“Split Needles (Alternate Version)” takes the energy of the original and boosts it, finding its footing in an anxious drumbeat and nervous cadence. The song sounds a little like something The Clash would have made if The Clash were fronted by Frank Black. The song starts, “I’ve done myself an impossible crime/ I had to paint myself a hole and fall inside,” and it pretty much follows from there.

Maybe it was Zach Braff’s inclusion of “Caring is Creepy” and “New Slang” on his ber-indie hugfest “Garden State,” or maybe it was the focused critical attention Chutes got for shifting The Shins in a sharper direction, but for one reason or another, people seem to forget that one of the qualities that makes The Shins so special is that the band always offsets its mellow with its madcap (and vice-versa) in such a way as to perfectly complement each.

Like Dr. Jekyll, the monster doesn’t completely overtake the man, and the man can’t completely control the monster. It’s a balancing act, and The Shins look to have mastered it again.