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November 3, 2003

The Shins invert the '60s again on new album

When the Shins released their debut album, Oh, Inverted World, in June of 2001, they appeared to have emerged from some bizarro Summer of Love haze. They came out of nowhere, or perhaps, as their album title would imply, they came from some alternate dimension in which the late '60s had been superimposed upon the early years of the twenty-first century. But the truth was more delicious than this fiction, because the Shins were, in fact, from Albuquerque. Looking back, who would have thought that this New Mexican quartet would essentially beat Manhattan's Strokes to the punch, starting all this recent retro-rock madness by paying homage to '60s icons (the Beach Boys for the Shins, the Velvet Underground for the Strokes) and make it sound strangely fresh and mysterious?

Oh, Inverted World may not have sold many copies, but it did get its share of ink in music magazines from coast to coast and became an essential record for any indie hipster who knew his Beulah from his Belle & Sebastian. However, with success comes expectations, and the Shins wisely took their time crafting a worthy follow-up to their debut album. The band moved its operations to the indie-pop Shangri-la of Portland, Oregon and remained unassuming, recording in frontman James Mercer's basement.

Now the Shins have finally come up for air, but they're not surprising anyone this time. Their once unknown origin has now become legend, and their location has gone from undefined to pinpointed. Fans of the band have been waiting by that cellar door somewhere in Portland, like Elmer Fudd anticipating that wascally wabbit, eager to pounce on what the Shins have come up with next.

The product of their toil is Chutes Too Narrow, an album that shows the band challenging itself, letting go of defenses while taking chances. It is a record that must be broken in like a new pair of sneakers. This collection of songs may at first feel uncomfortable to the listener, but they fit snugly once they've been worn around the block a few times in the Discman.

This is how you may learn to love Chutes Too Narrow. You may at first be wary to accept this album that follows the revered Oh, Inverted World, afraid to hum the songs that don't stick in your head quite as easily. The very first song tests your powers of acclimatization, as it does not sound like the Shins of the first album. "Kissing the Lipless" acts as a template for the rest of the album, more for what it lacks than what it contains. Gone are the echo effects that hovered around Mercer's voice like a halo throughout Oh, Inverted World. Now we hear the full, naked range of Mercer's lovely tenor, unadorned and in front of the mix on every song. He no longer hides within the electronic haze that surrounded the songs of the first album; here every syllable is fully enunciated, every guitar is strummed with clarity. Each sound fills your headphones with a crispness never before heard from the Shins.

With the veil lifted from the band's sound, Mercer's obscure songwriting is heard more clearly than ever, if not fully comprehended. His penchant for writing surrealistic, strangely poignant lyrics has only intensified, with each song embodying its own style more than on Oh, Inverted World. Nearly every song on Chutes Too Narrow is its own genre exercise, some venturing into Gordon Lightfoot singer-songwriter territory ("Young Pilgrims," "Pink Bullets"), some recalling the more rollicking material from the debut LP ("So Says I," "Fighting in a Sack," "Turn a Square"), and one twanging like some lost Willie Nelson song ("Good as Gone"). The most melancholy of the lot is "Saint Simon," which dabbles in Burt Bacharach orchestral pop terrain.

Perhaps what's most impressive about Chutes Too Narrow is the Shins' ability to tighten and strip their sound of gauzy excess while retaining their own brand of mystery. Singer/guitarist Mercer, keyboardist Marty Crandall, bassist and guitarist Dave Hernandez, and drummer Jesse Sandoval, who have been playing together with one group or another since their early days in Albuquerque, have clearly improved as a band, which makes Chutes sound less like a studio experiment and more like a band stretching its wings. Electronic flourishes still abound, but on Chutes we hear each instrument with more resonance and clarity, because the Shins are unafraid to show off their formidable musicianship. Their glum grace emanates more intensely without the embellishment of previous material. The Shins somehow remain enigmatic while giving things away.

The band treads on worn ground, yet still manages to sound like nothing but the Shins. Like any group with a reverence for history, the band does borrow from its heroes. Theirs is a skewed look backward, however, casting the past in the light of an inverted world, or, as depicted in the cover art of Chutes Too Narrow, a cartoonish land that resembles a miniature golf course as seen on an acid trip, with ice cubes bobbing in oceans and pink octopi with limbs splayed every which way. Mercer's lyrics paint a world of pseudo-reality, with real emotions populating a world of fantastical dimensions. To wit: "An address to the golden door/I was strumming on a stone again/Pulling teeth from the pimps of gore/When hatched a tragic opera in my mind"—even Donovan couldn't have come up with that weird gem. Fortunately, Mercer's band joins him in this alternate dimension, inflecting these basic pop ditties with a flair for the absurd and a nod toward modern technology.

Chutes Too Narrow is an album not of this world, which is what makes it, and the Shins, so thoroughly pleasurable, stimulating, and important to contemporary music. It makes one wonder what could possibly be in the water down in Albuquerque. Of course, knowing that might just give too much away.