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The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow

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Artist: The Shins

Album: Chutes Too Narrow

Label: Sub Pop

Review date: Oct. 27, 2003

In Jonathan Franzen’s overrated best-seller The Corrections, there exists a sophisticated computer program that can identify patterns in someone’s favorite music and synthesize the data into new music that is guaranteed to satisfy. Only fiction? It seems that The Shins have gained access to this magical machine, and they keep pushing my buttons, over and over and over again.

The Albuquerque foursome first exercised this eerie power on me (and countless others) with 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, a stomach-stinging, bell-ringing cyanide bon-bon of a debut. The album stands as a diamond-perfect pop artifact. James Mercer and his merry popsters toured their cords off (supporting elder indie statesmen like Modest Mouse and Red House Painters), released a few singles, got canonized by every music critic from here to Hong Kong, and then had to face a promising young band’s greatest challenge: doing it all again. Like all excellent first albums, Oh, Inverted World invites skepticism at the thought of a repeating such a triumph. Enter the sophomore odds-wrecker: Chutes Too Narrow.

The production is clearly better (Phil Ek and a bigger budget will do that), and hence it sounds more contemporary than the first, which could have passed for a lost ’60s treasure with its hazy faraway recording. But on Chutes, Mercer’s voice is singing right next to you, and the change works wonders. The front-and-center feel lends the album a youthful, vulnerable fray, something absent from the precision of the band’s debut, and a dynamic addition to the current batch of songs, which vary from the quote-in-a-long-lost-love-letter variety to the weep-into-weak-coffee-and-chain-smoke kind.

Mercer works over some of the same lyrical territory as Inverted World, managing to turn Lit-mag dreck into true, ahem, poetry. The unusual enjambment of multiple lines avoids banality ( “After that confrontation you left me wringing my cold hands” on “Mine’s Not a High Horse”), and in other cases, genuinely clever writing spins elemental emo images into gold, like on “Kissing the Lipless” – “Burying in the yard the grey remains of a friendship scarred.”

This restrained wailer (Blue Cheer hollerin’ and, wait, is that a xylophone?) kicks off the record, followed by “Mine’s Not a High Horse”, which evokes The Cure and the Bunnymen with subtle synths and lovely transitions of lyrical delivery (“Falling out of the van” crooned/spat with wistful abandon). “So Says I” is a romper-stomper with beautiful harmonies and a monster-mash organ – some kind of paean to human nature at its most nasty, brutish and short (2 minutes, 40 seconds, to be precise), while the acoustic “Young Pilgrims” contains seacoast holidays and secret death drives, and could be Neil Young at his least nasal. “Saint Simon” is one of the two best songs on Chutes: the best set of la-la’s since Spector, a virtual indie-pop Pachebel’s Canon.

“Fighting in a Sack” has a racing punk momentum built for the pogo-stick, while “Pink Bullets”, by far the album’s weakest song, is perilously close to a Dawson’s Creek soundtrack selection, and slips into cheesy harmonica and Modest Mouse-ism (compare “the years have been short but the days were long” with “the years go fast but the days go so slow” from “Heart Cooks Brain”). All is redeemed, however, with the rollicking masterpiece “Turn a Square”, which has already become my reason to wake up in the morning. The album’s closers are excursions into Flying Burrito- and George Harrison-land – “Gone for Good” and “Those to Come” provide a delicate comedown from “Square’s” sheer beat-bop insanity (until you go back and play it again).

Their tickets are now scalping on Ebay for $100 and the keyboardist’s girlfriend might be America’s Next Top Model, but the Shins may well be rock’s little white hope. In “Turn a Square” Mercer asks: “Have I left my home just to whine in this microphone?”

Maybe, man, but we’re sure glad you did.

By Dusted Magazine

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