The Shins - four men in their mid-thirties from New Mexico who style themselves as "an American pop combo" - are the literate, intelligent music fan's dream. They make music that is melodic, catchy and inviting, but also strange and atmospheric: full of the pop sensibility of the Smiths and classic college rock, but also the drama of the Cure and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The Shins' frontman, the singer-songwriter James Mercer, lived in Britain as a teenager between 1985 and 1989, and Wincing the Night Away, his group's third full-length album, is full of aural reminders of that time.
These songs sound as fresh as a glass of sparkling lemonade on the first day of summer. Tracks such as "Australia" jump playfully around the speakers, all guitar chime and fizz, while the choruses (especially on "Phantom Limb", the first single) swerve, dive and resolve themselves euphorically.
But malevolence lurks beyond the brightness. The underwater gloom of "Black Wave", the distorted 56 seconds of "Pam Berry" and the Gothic drive of "Split Needles" are bracingly bleak, yet they still sound sublime. Mercer's lyrics, which read like Ted Hughes offcuts, add weight. "White girls of the north" walk in "ancient snow"; the "dead moon rises again"; mothers reject ugly children; and gunny sacks of red rabbits are "rendered an emulsion". You are kept marvelling at the Shins' melodicism while these strange, sinister images tumble out of the speakers, which is testament to their talent.
Not since REM's Automatic For the People has an album been both so other-worldly and so radio-friendly. This is a grown-up album with a big heart - sometimes bright, sometimes black; full of passion and commitment - that keeps pulling you back.