The Shins

Chutes Too Narrow

(Sub Pop; 2003)

By Scott Reid | 20 October 2003

With clapping hands and a distorted, harmonized "whoo!" it begins.

Chutes Too Narrow
is undeniably of the most eagerly awaited albums of the year for indie-rock/pop fans, its release bringing waves of optimism from everyone who caught their 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World. The optimism paid off: Chutes is a thirty-odd minute blast of brilliantly executed pop entwined with clever lyrics and a streamline production that pushes the mindnumbing hooks and James Mercer's piercing lead vocals to the forefront of the mix. Though the kind of immediacy that came from Inverted tracks like "The Celibate Life," "Know Your Onion" and "Girl Inform Me" seem far less evident at first, the album's short lifespan (under thirty five minutes) is still able to offer enough to keep you -- no matter how familiar with the band you may be -- transfixed until the entirety is able to prove itself as being on equal ground with its nearly predecessor.

And so, with clapping hands and a distorted yell it all begins, quickly breaking into the two-chord progression that propels the majority of "Kissing the Lipless." It's a thrilling reminder of what made "Caring is Creepy" such a terrific opener for Oh, Inverted World, Mercer's voice able to create so much out of simple progressions and arrangements. The scaled down production is also key; the chiming keys and distanced lead guitar lines giving the song its mesmerizing atmosphere, one which is reshaped throughout the album to many different ends. "Mine's Not a High Horse" follows, and despite the keyboards that back the chorus, it's every bit as immediate, laid-back and hook-laden as any of their previous material.

First single "So Says I" hearkens back to "Girl on the Wing" and "Know Your Onion" -- feverish in its energy yet still focused enough to offer up beautifully harmonized vocals and enough clever changes to make its brief appearance a creatively impressive one, as well. "Young Pilgrims" sounds like a solo performance between the songs that bookend it, but, once again, Mercer's knack for taking a relatively straight-foward progression and creating a memorable pop song with it is a process remarkably clear here and with "Gone For Good," formerly known as "A Call to Apathy." The country vibe, also evident in the Neil Young-inspired "Pink Bullets" becomes a suitable home for Mercer's most heartfelt (not emo-cliche heartfelt) lyrics: "Go back to your hometown get your feet on the ground and stop floating around," he sings; "I found a fatal flaw in the logic of love and went out of my head." It clears the way for the stirring closing track, "Those to Come." Mercer's desolate vocals sound utterly shaken against the decidedly cold production (compare the sound of the song, for instance, to "Kissing the Lipless" or "Saint Simon"), making it as stirring a finale as "The Past and the Pending."

"Saint Simon" ends the first side of the record with the record's biggest venture from their familiar sound. Very arguably Chutes' most satisfying track, both creatively and in terms of being instantly accessible/ridiculously catchy, its several sections weave in and out, tied together by Mercer's light falsetto and poetic lyrical turns ("Mercy's eyes are blue / When she places them in front of you / Nothing really holds a roman candle to the solemn warmth you feel inside of you"). The faux chamber-pop build stands in contrast to the album's general aesthetic, which is quickly brought back to focus with the bouncy "Fighting in a Sack." Though certainly not the strongest track to be found here, it still remains a far cry from superfluous filler, a style that is quickly bettered by the similar "Turn a Square." "Have I left my home to whine in this microphone" Mercer sneers, once again revealing the lyrical cycle of self doubt and insecurity. Very few can make such content sound warm and oddly inviting.

Chutes Too Narrow is exactly the kind of record I was hoping for since I first heard their debut, and though the production moves away from the primarily lo-fi approach that gave "The Celibate Life" and "Your Algebra" so much vitality, the record's cleaner sound is just as important to the more complex arrangements like "Saint Simon" or the Americana atmosphere of "Pink Bullets." Again, the album is incredibly short but is able to offer just enough to not feel stifling like this year's Battle of the Nudes (Gordon Downie), which was five minutes longer than this disc. Judging by the quality of the So Says I b-side "Mild Child," the band has even more tricks up their sleeve than they were willing to reveal with Chutes, though this album will forever remain an important step in the development of one of indie-pop's finest talents and not just one of the best albums to be released in 2003.