- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

After a stellar debut, most bands follow one of two courses: They keep the winning streak going or they strike out big. The Shins knocked album No. 2 — “Chutes Too Narrow” — out of the ballpark.

The band plays Tuesday and Wednesday at the Black Cat in the District.

“We decided to play two nights in a row rather than play some larger venue that would be less fun and less intimate,” explains guitarist and singer James Mercer from a hotel room in New York City.

Even with two nights, there will likely be a lot of Shins fans who won’t get to hear them play. That’s a far cry from just three years ago, when the band’s first album, 2001’s “Oh, Inverted World,” gained little attention upon release.

“We released it and it had sort of a meager reception at first, and it slowly started to spread,” Mr. Mercer says. “We were pretty surprised that it sold well.”

The band, which also includes keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval and bass guitarist Dave Hernandez, found itself gaining in popularity as word spread. It’s not too hard to understand the appeal.

The band produces thoughtful yet melodic pop songs, and its members don’t seem embarrassed by writing hooks that lodge deep in the brain. While indie rock bands are usually not the first ones McDonald’s goes to for commercial jingles, the band’s “New Slang” actually made it into an ad.

The group relocated from New Mexico to Portland, Ore., and was faced with the daunting task of following up a debut recording that continued to grow in popularity.

“I think everybody was sort of eagerly awaiting [the second album],” Mr. Mercer says. “I knew that I wanted it to sound a lot better.”

The Shins used better equipment this time around, but because of time constraints, they didn’t have the chance to test many of the new songs before a live audience. It was largely put together in the studio, Mr. Mercer says.

One of the songs on the record actually came about by accident. The band decided to abandon a song that was not working out, but were left with nine songs, one short of what they wanted. So Mr. Mercer got to work.

“I would wake up at like 5 in the morning and sit in the van and play acoustic guitar,” he says. “I had this idea in mind. … It ended up as the song ‘Young Pilgrims.’ ”

The tune is one of the better ones on the CD, and a line in the song — “I fell into a winter slide and ended up the kid who goes down chutes too narrow” — gives the album its title. With better studio equipment, the band could work with basic chord structures and a melody and then cut or expand the songs later as they saw fit.

Benefiting the group was its long history together. Though The Shins released its first album in 2001, the band members had been playing together in groups under different names since 1992.

“It makes the process much more intuitive,” Mr. Mercer says “We get along very well. It helps to have already ironed out all those idiosyncrasies we have.”

Years of traveling together in a tiny tour van, described by Mr. Mercer as “like being in a biosphere” pushed the four closer together. The closeness gives their albums an added confidence, as if it’s only a matter of time before they are household names.

The New York Times recently wrote that the band is “secretly famous”: well known, but not with the kinds of faces people recognize. That could all change, with several two-night shows in the United States, an appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” a tour in Europe and, they hope, one in Japan later in the year.

Speaking of bands that aren’t afraid to write catchy pop tunes, the Super Furry Animals are making a stop in the District this week. While the Welsh group has a reputation for writing epic psychedelic rock tunes, thanks to 2001’s “Rings Around the Sun,” their latest record, “Phantom Power,” has scaled back from those ambitious heights.

Well, maybe not entirely. Like “Rings,” the band’s seventh album also comes with a companion DVD filled with animated videos and extra tidbits for fans.

It’s a testament to the group’s songwriting powers that its members can tackle serious subjects (like war) in a way that doesn’t sound heavy-handed and remains hummable.

The band’s live show has also not been scaled back, but seems to have grown over the years, with elaborate video screens often accompanying the band on stage. Fans can be sure the band will keep things interesting when they play the 9:30 Club Wednesday.

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