Permit me to start with an anecdote (I rarely if ever do, so I hope you'll bear with me). During what I would roughly characterize as The Shins "craze" of late 2001 and early 2002, when anyone under the age of thirty with an indie-rock allegiance and a pair of ears was proclaiming "New Slang" (and, by extension, the Oh, Inverted World
LP) to be the greatest pop song they'd heard in their adult lives, I remained skeptical. Sub Pop had surely chanced upon something huge, but to my mind it was Beachwood Sparks who deserved everyone's attention in 2001, and a co-headlining tour during the summer of 2002 gave many an opportunity to decide for themselves. The Shins' brand of quirky pseudo-intellectual pop was catchy, to be sure, but was it brilliant? I kept waiting for something more.
With Chutes Too Narrow, Albuquerque's favourite sons (and Oregon's newest residents) finally offer proof of their not-quite-orchestral pop brilliance, and it rests outside the harrowing terrain of a single universally accessible tune. From tip to tail, The Shins' second effort sparkles with a clarity that was not always evident on their debut and energizes with a spark and an enthusiasm that previously seemed forced. Singer-songwriter James Mercer wails like he really means it this time, while keyboardist Marty Crandall (who can't stop telling anyone who'll listen that he dates an up-and-coming model) fills in all the gaps that Mercer carefully avoids. There is no "New Slang". Instead, there is an album's worth of well written and ably conceived pop tunes, each of which capture the spirit of Oh, Inverted World's few truly inspiring songs. "Kissing the Lipless", with searing cries from Mercer marking each of the second verse's opening lines, finds the usually understated vocalist doing an impressive Guy Piciotto impersonation. The New Wave spirit that drapes "Mine's Not a High Horse" morphs into an echo of the sounds Gorky's Zygotic Mynci displayed on their stellar How I Long To Feel That Summer In My Heart, and continues on stand-outs "Saint Simon" and the docile closer "Those To Come". "Gone For Good" proves that all that time with the robot cowboys in Beachwood Sparks has rubbed off on The Shins; it's an alt-country ballad that burns the lasso at both ends, then leaves a tidy little pile of ash in the shape of a shattered heart.
The hipsters who've been hailing The Shins as pop's second coming are surely tickled pink by Chutes Too Narrow. But more importantly, those who were waiting for the band to fulfill the promise of their debut's most memorable moments have finally got something to sink their teeth into. Unwilling to risk another ride on the slippery slope of one-hit wonderdom, The Shins have ably wandered into wide open territory.