Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins heavily anticipated follow-up (to Oh, Inverted World), was recorded in (singer/songwriter) James Mercer's basement home studio, with later mixing assistance from Phil Ek. And, with 10 songs,... more » clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the new record is a brief yet entirely scintillating glimpse at chiming, reflective and perfectly skewed pop innovation.« less
Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins heavily anticipated follow-up (to Oh, Inverted World), was recorded in (singer/songwriter) James Mercer's basement home studio, with later mixing assistance from Phil Ek. And, with 10 songs, clocking in at just over 30 minutes, the new record is a brief yet entirely scintillating glimpse at chiming, reflective and perfectly skewed pop innovation.
"Most of the associations I have of acoustic rock are not good. To put it bluntly, most acoustic rock doesn't rock. The Shins is not a purely acoustic band; they often and usually employ electric guitars on their songs. But I think this can be labeled an acoustic rock band because almost every song is primarily built around acoustic guitars and is always way to the forefront in the mix. And unlike most acoustic bands, these guys flat out rock. This is one of those albums where every song is so outstanding that it nearly kills you when a song comes to an end. Luckily, the one that follows is almost always just as good, again invoking a sense of dissatisfaction as each ensuing song comes to an end.
Although I don't dislike a single cut on the album, several especially grab me. I love the energy and driving force of "So Says I," which is one of the more "plugged" cuts on the album. I'm equally taken by a beautiful low-fi number "Saint Simon," that sounds like it could come out of the 1960s, a sort of blend of Love and the Kinks. Another song I have trouble getting past (because I keep hitting the replay button) is "Turn a Square," which just grabs me every time I listen to and won't let go of me. I could add the first cut on the album, "Kissing the Lipless," but really, I like every song on the album.
I do not know The Shins' earlier album, OH, INVERTED WORLD, but I have been both delighted and shocked that many fans of that album are disappointed in this one. I'm shocked because I have trouble getting over how good this one is, and delighted because it means that there another great Shins album for me to get my hands on."
God Bless the Shins
Brandon Whitfeld | nyc | 11/06/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The Shins, derivative of seemingly nothing, have perfected a delicate, masterful pop sensibility totally unique in today's modern/alternative music circles. With shades of the Smiths, Nick Drake, Belle and Sebastian, and the Beach Boys, this second album contains some high-flying work from this ethereal, glammy folk-rock quartet.James Mercer's highly-emotional, electrically-charged vocals wrapped around forceful, circular melodies that build upwards into the sky and back, is the key to their luscious sound. What do they sing about, really? Broken homecomings, unabashed memories from long ago, muted longings, the power of broken hearts, drifting into the ether, who knows really. It's hard to pin down their songs; their lyrics are as poetic, virtuosic and oddly visceral as the fragility of their music. But something about it just works, as if a golden hand from the gods has guided their way. Nothing have I heard has mixed haunting and harmonious to such brilliant effect.It is important to note that this album sounds very much like a continuation of their debut masterpiece, Oh, Inverted World. Yes, the band shows more colors here, and have done some musical exploring, but I can say with absolute assurance, that if you loved their first CD, you will be very pleased with Chutes Too Narrow.The lone striking chord that begins "So Says I", their first single, matches the keen assurance of Mercer's naked, choked voice that begins "Saint Simon", and says a lot for what this band can do with a simmering simplicity. "So Says I" will be the most familiar to you; its right off that first CD, feeling at home alongside "Know Your Onion" and "Girl on a Wing" in its thrust and verve. But the gorgeous, bizarre "Saint Simon" is an unexpected masterpiece, and will challenge any comparisons you might try and make: It's as if members of T Rex went carrolling in some future world far far away, and fed you their fever dreams.The album's opener, "Kissing the Lipless" approaches a hard-rocker, with a brash production number, and Mercer practically shrieking as the song builds. "Mine's Not a High Horse" is a great pop song, lilting and luminous, retaining its mystery and whatever secrets it inwardly holds that will keep it in your head for days, when you're not even sure anymore what you're humming. It might be my favorite song on the CD."Young Pilgrims" has a lolling, rockabilly bent to it, which is definitely something of a departure for them, but they somehow always manage to keep things tuneful. "Fighting in a Sack" also references their past songwriting, with a harmonica-laced, on-the-run pop glam-a-thon feel to it, and "Pink Bullets" brings that harmonica back for a softly pretty ballad soaked with longing and regret. At this point, the album dips a bit."Turn a Square" misses the mark for me, with a song structure that is slightly unfocussed and wavering for the Shins, and the smoky, country-influenced "Gone For Good" doesn't sound quite worthy of them, but still manages to be blissfully memorable: " I found a flaw in the logic of love..." Mercer sings on this song, sounding almost like the odd, recent experiments of alternative rock's fallen angel, Frank Black. The album closer is "Those to Come", a sweet simple folk song as reminiscent of the late Elliott Smith, as 70s British folk rock, which is not entirely successful here, but cannot be overlooked.However, the album as a whole will stand the test of time, for its true test of talent, mirth, and sincerity. The Shins keep things short: brief songs, an album that clocks in under a daytrip's drive home, but somehow manages to keep its swooning lyricism in your thoughts all day and all of the night."
We Could Not Have Hoped For A Better Second Album
Matt Kennedy | South Carolina | 10/24/2003
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Many an indie rock fan fell in love with the Shins' 2001 debut, "Oh, Inverted World." They seemingly burst on to the scene completely formed, already possessing a sound uniquely their own (they've been together for almost a decade). On "Chutes Too Narrow," the Shins continue to cultivate a reputation for excellent songcraft, though this album provides a slicker production value and a different bass player (Dave Hernandez of Scared of Chaka replaces Neal Langford). Their first album was certainly characterized by a certain sound--one full of driving drum beats, melodic guitars, neat synth effects, and unforgettable vocal harmonies.
On "Chutes Too Narrow," the Shins part ways with that sound to a degree, offering a far more versatile collection of tunes. Some of them, including, 'Gone For Good,' 'Young Pilgrims,' and 'Pink Bullets,' are both acoustic and decidedly twangy. Others, such as 'So Says I' and 'Kissing The Lipless,' are more akin to the sound of the original record, complete with lovely harmonies and unbelievably catchy vocal hooks. This record is markedly different from the first one, but they somehow manage to keep grasp of what makes them The Shins. Whatever your tastes, it is difficult to deny that the songwriting on this album is both well thought out and a sign of excellent pop sensabilities. "Chutes Too Narrow" is a worthy successor to the band's acclaimed debut, hinting that this group will leave its mark both on indie rock history and in the creative minds of future artists--many would argue that they already have."
A modern masterpiece
Matt Kennedy | 11/01/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I'll start out with a disclaimer: for people who heard Oh! Inverted World, the Shins' brilliant debut, this isn't it. Of the ten songs on this album, only one would be at home on that album. Where Inverted World was tightly thematic, Chutes Too Narrow is expansive, broad, and diverse. Believe me, that's a good thing. The album meanders between poppy highs (Kissing the Lipless, So Says I, Turn A Square) and melancholy lows (Pink Bullets, Gone For Good), and hits all the ground in between. The Shins have expanded their sound dramatically. There are infusions from folk, rock, metal, blues, and the album slips effortlessly from jangling guitars to acoustic balladry to dream pop and back again, and belying subtle mastery at each. Chutes Too Narrow is perennially playful, and you can always hear the thematic overtones of the 60's pop-rock they are so often compared to, but at every turn, the songs provide you with inventive new takes on old devices. The album maintains a dichotomy; most of the music is played on upbeat chords, but the lyrics tend to the the darker side ("I know I've got this side of me / that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot / and just fly the whole mess into the sea," sings Mercer in Young Pilgrims). It still comes off as an upbeat album, though, and the closing song, the slow, dreamy, gorgeous "Those To Come" leaves the album on a happy, if slightly bittersweet, note.All in all, Chutes Too Narrow is one of the best rock albums of the year--it's inventive, catchy, tuneful, and intelligent. You can't go wrong."
More Than Just The Best CD of 2003
Blake Maddux | Arlington, MA United States | 07/10/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The October 2003 release of The Shins' "Chutes Too Narrow" should have brought the search for that year's best CD to a screeching halt. And yet, it still managed to miss the top spot of many critics' lists, and to miss the Top 10 entirely on others. My only explaination for this is that these negligent critics did not hear the CD until after their deadlines. (I didn't until May 2004 myself.) That or they were experimenting: "How many CDs can I rank higher than 'Chutes Too Narrow' before I realize the grave injustice that I am committing?" Or maybe, "Obviously 'Chutes Too Narrow' is the best CD of 2003. Here are some other good ones."
By the third time that I listened to The Shins' sophomore triumph, I realized that I had discovered more than just the best new release of the previous year. I had also discovered a disc that was as worthy of accompanying me to a desert island as Elvis Presley's Sun Sessions, "Forever Changes", "The Velvet Underground and Nico", "Setting Sons", "Crazy Rhythms", The Smiths' "Singles", "Exile In Guyville", The Best of Guided By Voices, and "Dear Catastrophe Waitress". It even merits comparison to several of these records. It contains the ornate beauty and simple prettiness of "Forever Changes", but the production is sparser than that of Love's masterpiece. James Mercer's self-deprecating and self-effacing lyrics put him in a league with Morrissey and Stuart Murdoch. The jittery strumming reminds me of The Feelies, and the indie quirkiness of Guided By Voices is firmly in place as well. And while "Chutes Too Narrow" sounds like a product of the 21st century, its homages to classic pop bands like The Zombies, The Beach Boys, and The Kinks are unmistakable. Thus, this CD is a strong link in the Great Chain of Popular Music.
The 33 minutes and 52 seconds that make up this CD provide an enriching musical experience. The sparse acoustic numbers are offset by full-course rockers. Poetic obscurity (sometimes to a fault) sits comfortably beside humorous (and not-so-humorous) self-deprecation. The cerebral lyric "Tell Sir Thomas More we've got another failed attempt" appears three songs before the most succinct and sincere expression of lust to be found on a pop record in many a moon: "Just a glimpse of an ankle and I/React like its 1805". Is James Mercer the greatest singer in the world? No, but he can wail, whine, whisper, or croon as much as the song requires.
Some CDs are great because they aim to be so and succeed (eg, "Ok Computer"). Others are more modest projects that end up being great because the songs are so damn good (eg, "Something Else" by the Kinks). "Chutes Too Narrow" falls squarely into the latter category. There is not the faintest whiff of pretense on the record, except perhaps to those who mistake talent for pretense. It is a truly great pop record, distiguished from the tradition to which it is so often compared by its occasionally unsettling lyrics (eg, "Called to see if your back/Was still aligned/And your sheets/Are growing grass/All on the corners of your bed.") But still, it sounds so good that it is not one that only "rewards the patient listener". However, those who are willing to afford it the attention that it deserves and requires to fully appreciate will discover a CD with countless nooks and crannies, each one revealing a new musical - and lyrical - treasure.
The interesting element that unites the band's more obvious influences is their ability to write some of their best songs and to "rock" without such heavy reliance on the electric guitar. It has been a long time coming, but perhaps - as the Kings of Convenience title says - Quiet is the New Loud. The Shins rock less often in the loud sense of the word in Chutes Too Narrow. Granted, "Kissing The Lipless", "So Says I", "Fighting In A Sack", and "Turn A Square" are forceful and sometimes playful rockers, but most of the disc's best moments are more similar to the delicate elements of Love and Belle & Sebastian. Now, with all of these comparisons, one might think that The Shins are not terribly original. Granted, they may not score a majority of their points for being so. However, they more than compensate for this by sounding better than most of their comtemporary kindred spirits.
(Oh, and by "best moments", I mean the whole CD. There is not a single skipable song to be found here.)
So what about the individual songs? As stated previously, the CD is divided - though not quite evenly - between slower acoustic songs and strong, uptempo rockers. The opener, "Kissing The Lipless", sets the scene perfectly, as it is some of both. It starts out softly acoustic, moves to loudly electric, and then back again. The lyrics may be a bit too obscure for their own good, but there is nothing obscure about James Mercer's feelings: he is bitter and confused, and will remain so for the remainder of the disc. "So Says I", with the meatiest distorted guitar on the disc, is an uncharacteristicly political song. With its reference to Sir Thomas More, the song is about obviously about the impossibility of Utopia, but the lyric "therein lies the fatal flaw of the red age" seems to suggest that it is about Communism specifically. In the end, Mercer decides that democratic capitalism is, warts and all, the best system available (that is, of course, until something better comes along): "So we burned all our uniforms/And let nature takes its course again/And the big ones just eat all the little ones/That sends us back to the drawing board". The other rockers on the disc are "Fighting In A Sack", a joyous, wordy celebration with lyrics that seem to make sense in spite of themselves, and The Kinks-y "Turn A Square", which features the aforementioned expression of lust. (Compare the riff in this song to the one in "Picture Book" by The Kinks.)
Then there are the slower songs. "Mine's Not A High Horse", like the opening track, is a bit fuller, featuring a hovering keyboard that sounds like something from the sessions of Rush's 1982 album "Signals". "Gone For Good" is also one of the fuller of the slower tracks, and with its tasteful steel guitar, it returns the country flavor that first appears in harmonica form on "Fighting In A Sack". Then there are "Young Pilgrims", "Saint Simon", "Pink Bullets", and "Those To Come", all of which are thoroughly bare-bones affairs with beautiful poetic lyrics. Such lyrics are probably best demonstrated on "Pink Bullets": "When the kite lines first crossed/We tied them into knots./ To finally fly apart, we had to cut them off./Since then it's been a book/You read in reverse/So you understand less as the pages turn./Or a movie so crass, and awkwardly cast/That even I could be the star". The CD's closer, "Those To Come", sneaks up on the listener like a hidden track, then sings him/her to sleep (in a good way) with lullyby-like tale of nature's eternal recurrence.
I knew for a long time that I needed to review this CD, but then I was afraid to do so for fear of not doing it justice. I felt that it spoke for itself and that I should not interrupt it. But now that I have done it, I hope it is clear that I think that it is a modest masterpiece. "Chutes Too Narrow" requires a great deal of attention to fully appreciate, but it sounds so good that it is worth hearing irrespective of how much attention one is willing to give it.
Perhaps now I have built it up too much, so let me end with a couple of simple questions, along with their answers. Does "Chutes Too Narrow" have the posture of one of the best CDs of the decade? Absolutely not. Is it one of the best CDs of the decade? Absolutely. "