In the fall of 2003, the Shins found themselves in a position many promising young bands know well. They were about to release their second album, the follow-up to an acclaimed debut. Oh, Inverted World was a critical darling, lauded in the music press as well as the burgeoning online blog space.
By this point in the rock landscape, the 1990s alternative rock boom had sputtered out. Nickelback, Hoobastank, and their ilk peddled third-rate versions of grunge, nü metal had briefly dominated the charts but was on the way down, and the fresh, unique bands of the mid-1990s had turned, definitively, into one-hit wonders. In its place, a new term, indie rock, sprung up, and the Shins were an early, shining example of the sound.
The quartet from Albuquerque had the delicate sensibilities of a folk act but weren’t afraid to turn up the guitars every now and then. They had plenty of hooks and were willing to put down the drums and guitars and play those hooks on vibraphones and harmonicas instead. Oh, Inverted World felt vulnerable yet catchy, and the new record had a tall task to equal that success.
The Shins were more than up for the challenge. Singer-guitarist-songwriter James Mercer was ready with a new batch of songs that covered a wide range of moods and intensity levels. They licensed the earlier single, “New Slang”, to McDonald’s for a commercial and used the proceeds to move to Portland, Oregon. The band recorded their new album, Chutes Too Narrow, in the basement of Mercer’s Portland home.
At the time, the idea of a group putting their music on an ad for a product was mildly controversial. The Shins took some heat for it, as lingering, 1990s-style cries of “sellout” followed them around for a bit. It turned out that they were just ahead of the curve. No dedicated commercial radio format played indie rock, and MTV was shoving most of its music video programming onto the little-seen M2 channel. Commercials turned out to be a solid way for artists in the 2000s to get exposure for their music.
On hand to produce Chutes Too Narrow was Phil Ek, who had worked with other indie acts like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse. Oh, Inverted World was occasionally championed as a tremendous lo-fi record, and its production feels a bit quiet and distant. The opening seconds of Chutes make it immediately clear that Ek is going in a different direction.
“Kissing the Lipless” begins with a quick handclap rhythm, a loud “Woo!”, and Mercer’s acoustic guitar. Mercer isn’t strumming particularly intensely, but that sound is right up front in the mix. When he starts to sing, also relatively restrained; the vocals are clear and loud. Dave Hernandez’ electric guitar and Jesse Sandoval’s drums pop in for quick bursts after the first verse. Mercer begins the second verse by bursting into a massive falsetto, with the Shins joining him at full volume. “Kissing the Lipless” is an excellent quiet-loud-quiet rock track, and Ek ensures the listeners get the full impact of those dynamic changes.
“Kissing the Lipless” isn’t the only first impression Chutes Too Narrow makes. The album cover features a whimsical piece of pastel storybook-style artwork with hills, ponds, and weird creatures. The Shins’ label Sub Pop went the extra mile, making the CD booklet die-cut so that it unfolds into different layers in an almost pop-up book fashion. This effort paid off, as artist and designer Jesse LeDoux was nominated for a Grammy for Best Art Direction for the project. This art promises a bit more whimsy than the music delivers but remains a striking package.
Following “Kissing the Lipless”, Chutes Too Narrow keeps the energy level high. “Mine’s Not a High Horse” rolls along on quickly strummed acoustic guitar and energetic yet lightly played drums from Jesse Sandoval. Mercer mostly keeps his vocals in a lower register, letting Marty Crandall’s synths and quiet vocal harmonies handle the high end. “So Says I”, in contrast, finds Mercer using a falsetto yelp over jagged electric guitars. Released as the first single a month before the LP dropped, it announced a different energy level for the Shins.
The record includes two other big rockers. “Fighting in a Sack” is so quick that Mercer’s vocals feel like he’s about to stumble over his lyrics. The Shins sound like they’re having a great time at this breakneck pace, though, and a harmonica solo is a welcome sonic change. “Turn a Square” is also an upbeat track. However, its low, circling guitar riff and backbeat-heavy drums give the impression of a square-wheeled vehicle clunking down the road. This is another place where Mercer sings in his low register, but at crucial moments, he switches to his high voice, and it’s very effective.
It’s a credit to Ek and the Shins that the more subdued tracks feel almost as energetic. Mercer’s songwriting focuses on simple guitar riffs and vocal melodies, particularly on these ballads. “Young Pilgrims” is an excellent illustration of his technique. His verses are incredibly catchy, the chorus tempers the catchiness a bit, and the bridge is also super-singable. The only instruments are two guitars, one acoustic and one electric. “Saint Simon” uses the whole band, but Mercer’s melody is still front and center. Crandall’s piano and Sandoval’s drums do the bulk of the accompaniment, but Annemarie Ruljancich’s violin adds a strikingly different sound.
Only when the record rounds the bend toward the finish do the Shins start to back off, energy-wise. “Gone for Good”, with prominent pedal steel from Kevin Suggs, is a plaintive ballad with yet another killer vocal performance from Mercer. Chutes Too Narrow closes with “Those to Come”, essentially a lullaby. Mercer sings softly, and his quiet, nylon-string acoustic guitar matches that gentleness.
Sub Pop put some resources into marketing Chutes Too Narrow, and all of the Shins’ videos from the record at least got play on MTV’s indie-oriented show 120 Minutes. The videos were also available as on-demand selections on cable, an innovation that was soon rendered moot by the arrival of YouTube. Their debut was buzzed about, but this album was even more popular with the critical community, finishing at #6 on the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll. It also was the #5 best-reviewed album of 2003, according to the aggregator site Metacritic. The Shins toured successfully that fall and spring in support of the album. But in the summer of 2004, they got a significant boost.
Zach Braff, then primarily known as the star of the sitcom Scrubs, had written, directed, starred in, and had a hand in assembling the soundtrack for his indie dramedy Garden State. The soundtrack was filled with current indie acts and featured two Shins tracks from Oh, Inverted World. Not only that, in the film itself, Natalie Portman’s character name-checks the band and tells Braff’s character that “New Slang” will “change your life.” Garden State was not a big hit, but it was an indie success and made a pop culture impression. It goosed sales of both Oh, Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow and allowed the band to do another round of touring with a new set of fans.
After 2004, the Shins never again hit that same level of public awareness. Their third album, Wincing the Night Away, wouldn’t come out until 2007. While it was liked, the enthusiasm of fans and critics didn’t reach their earlier heights. Still, the Garden State bump paid off in terms of initial sales and chart position, as the record hit #2 on the Billboard album chart. Following this record and touring cycle, James Mercer fired the other three band members after working with them for over a decade. Engaging in some revisionist history, Mercer declared that the Shins had always been his one-person project and that the rest of the group was just hired sidemen.
Mercer has continued to use the Shins name with an assortment of new musicians. He’s released two more albums in the past ten-plus years, and each includes a handful of songs that recall the band’s early successes. For my money, though, Chutes Too Narrow represents the Shins’ pinnacle. It’s a stronger, more confident album than their debut. Mercer’s voice has never sounded better, and nearly every little twist the group tries pays off for them. Hernandez, Crandall, and Sandoval are contributing little flourishes all over the record that reveal themselves after multiple listens. Regardless of whether the Shins came up with those bits or if Mercer was dictating every drum hit and keyboard note, it all works. If 20 years is enough distance to begin taking stock of a pop music movement, Chutes Too Narrow should be on the list of defining albums of the indie rock era.