The Shins’ 2001 debut album Oh, Inverted World became one of that year’s biggest indie rock surprises, as the Albuquerque, New Mexico foursome suddenly found themselves being bombarded with praise from critics and audiences alike, entranced by their decidedly retro pop rock. That album was one of those perfect examples of an independent band working on their own, somehow managing to capture lightning in a bottle, putting out a nearly immaculate, innocuous little album that, despite lacking the slick sheen of a big studio effort, put most major label releases to shame. We’ve seen it time and again, from artists like The New Pornographers and Badly Drawn Boy, and especially in 2003, where such bands as Broken Social Scene and The Sleepy Jackson have come out with stalwart, homemade efforts as well. The Shins wore their influences on their sleeves, as Oh, Inverted World was a direct homage to such ‘60s artists as Brian Wilson, The Kinks, The Byrds, and Love, as such songs as “Know Your Onion!” and “New Slang” became instant classics. So now, two long years later, the one question that begs to be answered is, “Where do they go from here?”
You hear just exactly where The Shins are going in the opening minute of their brand-new album, Chutes Too Narrow. As “Kissing the Lipless” begins, you hear the muffled, lo-fi sound of six quick handclaps, followed by a joyous, “Whoo!” An insistently-strummed acoustic guitar begins, immediately showing that the band has completely eschewed the ethereal, reverb-heavy, straight-out-of-the-‘60s sound of the first album, driven home even further as you hear singer/guitarist James Mercer come in, his voice right up front in the mix, singing, “Called to see if your back was still aligned / And your sheets are growing grass on all of the corners of your bed.” A few seconds later, you hear a sharp, angular electric guitar riff slice through the mellowness, along with some hesitant tom fills by drummer Jesse Sandoval, as the song explodes into the chorus, Mercer screaming in a falsetto, “You toooold us of your new life there, you’ve got someone coming round . . .” It’s an audacious way to begin the album, but fitting, because The Shins dare to take some chances on this CD, and their boldness winds up elevating this album over their first one by a considerable margin.
Whereas Oh, Inverted World was more album-oriented, with each song contributing to a cohesive, similarly-themed listening experience, The Shins let loose a bit more on Chutes Too Narrow. “Saint Simon” shows the most adventurousness, greatly resembling the twisted pop genius of Canadian bands Destroyer and Zumpano, blending slick pop with eccentric lyrics (“And though the saints of us divine in ancient feeding lines / Their sentiment is just as hard to pluck from the vines”) and touches of theatricality. Midway through this oddly pleasant-sounding song, it breaks into a more austere bridge, complete with strings, as a layered chorus of “la da dum”‘s swirl higher and higher. Meanwhile, “Young Pilgrims” is much more low key, possessing a relaxed, pastoral feel similar to Badly Drawn Boy’s best work, as Mercer sings an odd, stilted vocal melody that sounds remarkably close to Liz Phair’s early songs. The folky “Mine’s Not a High Horse” is buoyed by a lilting synth line by Martin Lesley Crandall, and “Pink Bullets” is a more spare song, echoing the likes of Nick Drake and Neil Young.
It’s on the more electric songs where the album truly shines, as the band displays much more energy on record than before. “So Says I” combines chiming, Byrds-like guitar, some louder, distorted guitar licks, and some terrific vocal harmonies, not to mention being the first rock song in quite some time (maybe ever?) to name-drop Sir Thomas More. The rousing “Fight in a Sack”, with its Farfisa organ and “ba-ba-ba” vocals greatly resemble the songwriting of former Zumpano and current New Pornographer frontman Carl Newman, while “Turn a Square” actually dares to swipe the honkytonk riff from Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast as You”, as Mercer sings such charmingly goofy lines as, “Just a glimpse of ankle and I/React like it’s 1805.” It all comes together perfectly on the Wilco-style country rock of “Gone For Good”, with its gorgeous chorus, “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love / And go out of my head.” The song’s melody is so natural, it just glides along languidly, as Mercer delivers some great, melodramatic bon mots, such as, “Just leave the ring on the rail for the wheels to nullify.”
Now based in Portland, Oregon, The Shins prove they’re more than just another group of throwbacks disguised as indie rockers; they show some remarkable versatility, taking their sound into new territory while still maintaining their focus. Oh, Inverted World was a fun record, a cool indie pop album that seemed to come from out of nowhere, but Chutes Too Narrow is even more of a surprise. This album’s a real winner, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that these guys are definitely the genuine article.