The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow

Adrien Begrand

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.

The Shins

Chutes Too Narrow

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2003-10-21
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.