Years ago, a very smart local musician challenged me to explain precisely what makes the Shins' James Mercer such a great songwriter. The superlative Wincing The Night Away, the Portland indie stars' first release since they were Braff-apulted into mainstream consciousness, offers some clues. Mercer's strength lies in the way he walks you out to the edge of a cliff, as on the ascending melodic progression of the chorus to shimmery centrepiece Red Rabbit, then leaves you teetering where other singer/songwriters would deliver you back to safe ground. Neither fucking up the perfect pop formula that cemented their original fan base nor resting square in their comfort zone, the Shins judiciously fold new sounds, like electronic tinkering, reconfigured synth squiggles, banjo and programmed beats into the mix. Not everything works -- the shuffling breakbeat/rusty strum of the spare Sea Legs is a bit silly -- but even the flawed experiments make for an enjoyable listen. And lyrically, Mercer leaves you with images -- fake smiles like a mother with an ugly child, perching on the handlebars of a blind man's bike -- you won't be able to shake.