Chutes Too Narrow
mack dab in the middle of the Great Garage-Rock Revival of 2001, The Shins were a welcome breath of cool summer air in a landscape otherwise strewn with gutter trash, cheap leather, call girls and IV needles, a band that offered its own flavor of nostalgia to compete with the minimalist, hipster-brand cock-rock of The Strokes, Hives, White Stripes, ad infinitum.
Now don’t mistake me here, all of those bands and a few others helped spearhead a rebirth of stripped-down, cheap-thrills rock ‘n’ roll which, while not quite the equivalent of a revolution, made rock radio a safe place for a few brief months, but still it was quite a feat for The Shins to break through with their spasmodic, sun-kissed, late-60s sound in the midst of all this urban ennui and put-upon cool (there I go again, I apologize, I love the Stripes, and even though Julian Casablancas once slammed his mic stand down on my girlfriend’s hand, I still love him too).
Just as those ubiquitous garage-rockers offered up a stream-lined, sexed-up, less-neurotic version of 60s electric blues and 70s proto-punk, so too did The Shins drain Brian Wilson of his symphonic schizophrenics and Rivers Cuomo of his post-collegiate, straight white male hangups.
Lead singer James Mercer acquits himself quite well with a pen, and never allows his words to detract from (or often even draw attention from) the music, but the fact remains that it's the band’s relentless melodicism and savviness with a good hook that signifies The Shins as more than just another glorified cover band.
Now, while it seems more than fair to expect The Strokes to account for their overnight success, The Shins are pop-rock veterans who have bounced around in different incarnations under a couple of different names (Flake and Flake Music).
Regardless, expectations are high for the band’s nominal sophomore release, but The Shins are smart enough not to depart from the foolproof formula that made Oh, Inverted World such a surprise indie favorite, and so there’s been no letup on Chutes Too Narrow when it comes to the number of irrepressible melodies guaranteed to find themselves stuck inside your head within a matter of minutes.
The problem, however, lies in what happens after these good-natured hooks and harmonies wear out their welcome. Once again, unlike a Wilson or a Cuomo, Mercer lacks the larger-than-life genius/ego to impose his will on his material, to make Chutes Too Narrow sound like the work of a premeditated, purposeful artist rather than an impeccable hired gun.
Of course, that’s not meant to discount Mercer’s status as a pop-rock marksman of the first order. While the leadoff track, “Kissing the Lipless,” is positively unhinged, Mercer’s voice careening wildly outside his range, its successor “Mine’s Not a High Horse,” is a subdued acoustic strummer, effortlessly sliding from verse to chorus and back again.
That’s just about all the setup you’ll need, as the remainder of Chutes Too Narrow follows that same pattern of interchangeable psych-rock Nuggets and mellow folk-rock downers. The former tend to be more derivative, as “Saint Simon” recalls the cheekier moments of The Coral, while the pogo-pop guitars on “Turn A Square” echo the classic Pixies romp “Here Comes Your Man.” As for the ballads, a pedestrian Travis-lite guitar figure might handicap “Pink Bullets,” but the exquisitely downtrodden melodies of “Young Pilgrims” and the countryish “A Call to Apathy” more than compensate.
I wanted to rate this album at least a half-point higher, but then I remembered how I salivated over The New Pornographers’ Electric Version earlier this year, how I devoted a solid two or three weeks to its pop-rock perfection, and felt certain that no other music released this year could ever hope to be as immediate and pleasurable as that unabashed confectioner’s delight.
I haven’t given it a spin now in close to three months, and I’m still not sure I understand how music that’s so instantly memorable could turn out to be so instantly forgettable, but that’s the essential paradox of Chutes Too Narrow as well. All the elements of timelessness are there, but the songs just don’t seem to live beyond the last note.