Monday, February 16, 2009

Primer: Part 2/Album Of The Week: Shins- Chutes Too Narrow

I'm working on a theory that the beginning of every Shins album announces its intention within the first song. Oh, Inverted World opens with 'Caring Is Creepy', which has astral keyboards and is a chugging mid-tempo jangle-pop gem. Wincing The Night Away's 'Sleeping Lessons' has a dreamy keyboard line and James Mercer sounds like he's singing underwater; it takes almost a full two minutes and 30 seconds before the electric guitars kick in and the songs sounds 'full' finally. What does Chutes Too Narrow begin with?? Some clapping, a "Woo!" and a patient acoustic guitar intro that gets punctured by electric guitars 40 seconds in. Before we hit the minute mark we're already in the midst of one of the most rocking and downright raunchy songs the Shins have put to tape--Mercer even manages a scream on the "be ready to remember" line.

Yeah, it's gunna be that kind of album.

Chutes Too Narrow represents a lot of things for the Shins. As alluded to in my review of their first album, this one sees the band fully plugging into the Northwest music scene, enlisting Built To Spill/Modest Mouse producer Phil Elk to help get the abundance of electric guitars on display to sound just right. It also represents the band not only matching their impressive debut but overcoming it; Oh, Inverted World is nearly flawless indie pop and essential to the zeitgeist of this decade thanks to Garden State, but pound for pound Chutes is better. This is an album bursting with addictive hooks and excellent songwriting--Wincing The Night Away is more challenging and interesting to talk about, but Mercer really perfected his way with arrangements and lyrics on this one. Lastly, Chutes Too Narrow represents the band filtering out some of their 60s pop/psychedelic tendencies for something much more akin to the power pop of contemporaries like The New Pornographers. Funnily enough, it was during this same era when Belle & Sebastian were themselves moving toward power pop from their twee/indie pop beginnings. Once again, comparisons could be drawn between the Shins and those Scottish masters. But I digress.

The thing that strikes me most about this album today is just how energetic it is. We aren't quite to the spastic levels of Architecture In Helsinki but we're pretty close. Even the slower songs like 'Young Pilgrims' have a forward momentum to them (I also dig the pedal steel on this track; see 'Gone For Good' for more of the Shins going country). Most of this energy is due to the way the album was mixed, moving the guitars and vocals up front while burying the keyboards and bass. This is easily the Shins's most guitar centric album yet. Thankfully Phil Elk was on hand to capture the results;I say "thankfully" because he is an old hand at capturing these sort of distinctive guitar tones after working with Built To Spill, who also make use of guitars with a very clean, crisp, and slightly reverb-y sound. 'Saint Simon' has some staccato guitar chording as plucked from reggae (or funk) which somehow works in this context even once the band gets to the second half of the song with the angelic 'la da da da da' chorus. 'Turn A Square', meanwhile, reminds me of excellent group interplay in the beginning to the Beatles's 'Don't Let Me Down' only played faster and continuously.

On a side note, 'Those To Come' is such a great way to end this album. It's so reserved and poetic; something about the atmosphere it creates is utterly perfect and makes me think of whistling tea kettles on foggy weekend mornings. It makes me long for a James Mercer solo album whenever I hear it because--especially after the growth shown on Wincing The Night Away--I think he could make a really excellent album on his own.

I wanted to complain that this album is too short, but I only think that when I look at the runtime. Chutes Too Narrow is short and to the point; all excess and flab has been trimmed away. It is an as-perfect-as-we're-likely-to-get-in-this-world power pop album. While it's unclear where they'll go from their third album, Chutes stands as the band's pinnacle and is my favorite of their's thus far.

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