Review: The Shins – “Chutes Too Narrow”

Alright, be honest.

You’ve already heard enough about the new record from The Shins, the critical darlings whose Oh, Inverted World was released to many oohs and aahs back in 2001, right? Music critics have hailed the band for its ability to craft majestic melodies couched in 30 years of the best guitar pop the West has produced.

The taste-makers at Rolling Stone declared the band’s debut passed by the listener’s ears in a “gorgeous blur.” The Shins’ latest has been popping up on countless top-10 lists. And, to top it all off, rumor has it that doctors and researchers commissioned by the United States government have found the LP just may be the cure for cancer.

The problem with fame – even in lesser senses or among the pockets of society consumed by independent music – is that it tends to paint every scene with the same overbearing brush.

So, before you know it, not only is a great record making the rounds on college radio or getting talked up at neighborhood coffee shops, but you start hearing strange celebrity tales about the musicians behind the music, such as that juicy one about how one of the models on that UPN reality show is actually dating the keyboardist in the band that seems to be drawing all this attention. (True.) After a while, you find yourself struggling to remember the songs behind the ever-increasing excitement.

Well, push aside the buzz-buzz-buzz around The Shins’ Chutes too Narrow, and what remains? For a change, an incredible record.

The songs on Chutes too Narrow are great in the way that some of the best pop songs can be. The melodies are familiar and instantly recognizable, tunes that get you to hum along even on a first listen.

But the 10 songs on the too-short LP also sparkle with a distinct and original voice, something that is markedly independent-minded but also pays clear homage to more commercial songwriters like Brian Wilson or Lennon and McCartney. This dichotomy carries a spark to it that seems to excite the band as much as it does the listener, and it can be felt from the very first notes that ring out from the record. On the album-opening “Kissing the Lipless,” James Mercer can barely keep his voice from exploding with a kind of giddy excitement over a sharply recorded shuffle of acoustic guitars and crashing cymbals.

Picking notable moments on the record is difficult because so much of it is notable and aims to hit the same high expectations. “Saint Simon” is one of the best damn pop songs you’ve heard in years, an emotive offering that melds doo-wop guitars and the pitter-patter of a hi-hat with a bouncy chorus of voices, the occasional interjection of keyboards and washes, and a sugar-sweet but loungy swell of violin over an instrumental bridge.

There’s the retro/psychedelic romp of “So Says I” and “Fighting in a Sack,” the textured acoustic sway of the ballad “Pink Bullets,” or the almost elegiac, album-closing “Those to Come,” and the you-can’t-stop-anyone-from-dancing-to-it guitar rock of “Turn a Square.” In short, there’s not a weak track out of the 10 here and, with a running time of less than 35 minutes, you’ll find yourself frustrated the band didn’t lengthen the chutes of the title.

Even though much of the music discussed in fanzines or talked up by those with more eclectic tastes will never see one-tenth of the audience handed to a commercial machine like Ms./Mrs. Spears, The Shins have been getting their share of critical gushing and celeb-fixation, and it only seems to be growing with Chutes too Narrow.

Try to catch the blue moon in the sky, though, because this is one of those rare times when the buzz is clearly merited. – Delusions of Adequacy, Jan. 12, 2004


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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