- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

The Shins

Chutes Too Narrow

Sub Pop Records

The summer of love may be long gone, but the Shins, a New Mexico-based art-pop band, is still soaking up the sun of ‘67. The band, led by singer-songwriter James Mercer, smelts the West Coast psychedelia of Love and Moby Grape with the jolly pop of the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Beach Boys and the Zombies and sends it all through a new wave and post-punk Cuisinart.

“Chutes Too Narrow,” the Shins’ sophomore release, is crammed tightly at a little more than a half-hour with 10 cuts of crafty instrumentation (Marty Crandall’s flair for analog keyboards is particularly tasty — hear the trippy synth in “Mine’s Not a High Horse”) and, always, sparkling harmonies.

Mr. Mercer does all the singing; the band is rounded out by Dave Hernandez on bass and guitar and Jesse Sandoval on drums.

At times, the Shins resemble the Vancouver indie-rock band the New Pornographers. In his singing, Mr. Mercer has a melodic phrasing similar to that of the latter band’s Carl Newman. In his lyrics, he mirrors Mr. Newman’s verbosity.

Mr. Mercer balances the wordiness with stylishly simple arrangements. On the album’s opener, “Kissing the Lipless,” he stretches a complex, winding melody over two chords. The glum country ballad “Gone for Good” is graced by the welcomingly cliched twang of a pedal-steel guitar.

“Chutes” is awash in stream-of-consciousness intellectualism, and while impossibly blurry, the picture is no doubt bleak — ironically, given the cheery pastels of the album cover.

There’s a botched utopia on “So Says I”: “This is nothing like we’d ever dreamt / Tell Sir Thomas More we’ve got another failed attempt,” Mr. Mercer sings. A relationship on the outs (“Kissing the Lipless”): “I want to bury in the yard / the grey remains of a friendship scarred.” And plenty of existential angst, as on “Young Pilgrims”: “This modern thought can get the best of you.”

Mr. Mercer hides in esoterica when he would do well to open up. The album’s most affecting lyric is burrowed in “Turn a Square”: “Have I left my home / just to whine in this microphone?” There, in a nutshell, is every struggling singer-songwriter’s lament.

“Chutes” fades out ominously with the dark “Those to Come,” on which Mr. Mercer, morosely plucking an acoustic guitar in an open tuning, sings of dissipation, dissolution, death and coldness.

Beneath a bright luster of late-‘60s trans-Atlantic pop, the Shins is actually a gloomy bunch. “Chutes” hides that gloominess darn well.

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