In 2001, the Shins emerged as one of the bands to watch by standing out from the moody rap rock and their rockist peers of the time. Their brand of indie rock owed more to the Kinks and Brian Wilson than to the Stooges or Television. While garage band revivalists got tons of press that didn’t always convert to strong sales or cultural footprint, the Shins’ Oh, Inverted World became a surprise crossover hit, captivating fans, critics, and even McDonalds, who licensed one of the songs for a commercial.
Back in 2003, anticipation was high for Chutes Too Narrow, which has been remastered and reissued this fall to celebrate 20 years of this acerbic, energetic follow-up to one of the most praised debuts of this century. While the remaster, completed by Adam Ayan in collaboration with James Mercer, doesn’t really mess with success, it remains an essential release (perhaps the essential release) from the Shins, whose three-album run on Sub Pop is one of the best of the 2000s. It was rightly lauded as one of the best albums of the decade by The AV Club, NME, and Pitchfork, who also anointed it with the Best New Music tag upon its release.
It is easy now to make light of “New Slang” appearing in Garden State, with the Shins getting a name check and Natalie Portman’s character Sam’s promise of life-changing sounds. As self-serious swing at “The Graduate for Millennials” as the film is, the scene still resonates because, as Lester Bangs once said, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” Portman’s facial expressions as she watches Zach Braff listen to the song beautifully capture that feeling Bangs was writing about.
The 2000s brought a whole host of bands and sounds that certainly would have been labeled as uncool in other decades, from the Decemberists‘ rock operas to Joanna Newsom‘s epic Ys to the indulgent prog of the Mars Volta. Chutes Too Narrow had been released already, but Braff stuck with the signature song on Oh, Inverted World, and it’s easy to see why he bypassed this prickly but catchy collection of songs for his big romantic moment with Natalie Portman, despite it being a level up in every possible way.
Soon enough, the Shins would come to be acknowledged as one of the key players in the great mainstreaming of indie rock in the 2000s. Chutes Too Narrow, The Postal Service, and Death Cab for Cutie‘s Transatlanticism shepherded in a new era of indie that would come to unseat the uninspired rap rock dominating the radio at the time.
“Kissing the Lipless” announces this will not be a direct sequel to that beloved debut, with its propulsive chorus and more immediate production from Phil Ek. Mercer’s vocals are right out front, and his scream in the chorus is surprising but impossible to resist. If the quaint reverb of Oh, Inverted World hooked listeners, it’s apparent from the jump that the Shins don’t plan on repeating themselves this time out. That leads right into “Mine’s Not a High Horse”, which sounds like a punchier version of a song from the debut.
Overall, the standout feature of Chutes Too Narrow is dynamism. Where Oh Inverted World cultivates a vibe, songs such as “Kissing the Lipless”, “So Says I “, “Fighting in a Sack”, and “Turn a Square” chug along and have more in common with Built to Spill than the Beach Boys, unsurprising given Ek’s resume. Mercer’s range is more apparent, too, as he sounds as great on the more up-tempo songs as he does on the quieter tracks like “Pink Bullets” and “Those to Come”.
The country-tinged “Gone For Good” is a disarming standout and a surprising move for the Shins. In addition, Mercer’s lyrics also have a little more acidity this time out, with failing friendships and relationships emerging as key themes explored with his signature wordplay. The propulsion of the rockers and the prettiness of the quieter songs can lure the listener in to sing along with lines like “I don’t look back much as a rule / And all this way before murder was cool.”
Twenty years later, it is even more apparent that this is the finest release in the Shins’ discography. Mercer’s restlessness would take the group through some peaks and valleys from here, but Chutes Too Narrow remains one of the essential indie rock records, especially if one wants to understand the moment the genre had in the 2000s.