October 23, 2003

The Shins: Chutes and Ladders

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After languishing in post-punk/indie-rock obscurity for the better part of a decade, The Shins began to garner national attention with their 2001 breakthrough Oh, Inverted World. A brilliant album overflowing with some of the catchiest melodies this side of Fountains of Wayne, fluttering keyboards lines, and other assorted electronic trimmings, the record was a delightfully refreshing and quirky affair. But the band’s new album Chutes Too Narrow, released this week via Sub Pop, is a marked departure from their previous efforts. The new record finds The Shins traversing decidedly more barren sonic landscapes and shedding some of their previous pretensions. The bells and whistles give way to a more organic approach and what’s left is a collection of songs that are astonishing in both their breadth and their simplicity.

James Mercer, the band’s principal songwriter, hasn’t lost his penchant for melody and his compositions are as strong as ever. And the band, which in addition to Mr. Mercer features Jesse Sandoval, Marty Crandall, and Neal Langford, is in fine form throughout the album. But on this outing, The Shins seem eager to create a more sonically open environment then they have in the past. And their success at this task is evidenced by the manner in which Mr. Mercer’s songs stretch and evolve in ways they never have before. This new musical terrain also gives The Shins’s sunny yet sophisticated brand of rock more room to breath — wonderfully unencumbered by the type of dense arrangements featured on Oh, Inverted World. That’s not to say that Mr. Mercer has entirely shed his introspective lyrical compositions. While some of the tracks may at first appear to be carefree jangle-pop `a la The Beach Boys, a closer listen reveals a brooding pessimism that subtly permeates much of the record.

The album’s opener “Kissing The Lipless” is about as good a pop song as you could hope to hear — as well as a strong statement about what’s to follow. Featuring Mr. Mercer’s somewhat nasal but always endearing vocal delivery, the track evolves from a simple acoustic guitar figure into a brief and wistful pop song. “Fighting In A Sack” continues in the same vein: a fairly straight-ahead rock tune with a catchy chorus and a solid arrangement.

The production on the record is patently low-fi but passable: especially considering the fact that it was recorded in Mr. Mercer’s basement. The mix is designed to showcase the songwriting, and the guitar and vocals are put right up front where they belong.

Overall, the band doesn’t deviate much from their newfound formula. So, if there’s anything here that could be properly cited as a significant flaw, it’s that it doesn’t break much new ground. But when you’re this good at crafting pop melodies tinged with cynicism, that kind of consistency might not be all that bad.

Archived article by Mathew Gewolb