Shins Chutes Too Narrow

The first Shins album, 2001′s Oh, Inverted World, was a collection of effortlessly punchy pop-rock and warm-blooded balladry, but its frayed nerves and plucky resolve were softened by mid-fi reverb haze. It was a mirage, the New Mexico desert’s best evidence that life is but a dream — and not just that gorgeously cooing, tambourine-tapping, gently strummed sigh that got them McDonald’s money and later soundtracked the 2004 Braff/Portman campaign. The whole record glimmers faintly; even as it embraces the highly conventional guitar-pop format, it feels not quite real.

Two years later — and 10 years ago today — the Shins brought their sound into crisp, clean focus, starting with some brisk handclaps and a hearty “Woo!” The relentless precision and soaring vocal acrobatics of “Kissing The Lipless” announced that this band could be visceral as well as ethereal, that Shins songs were tangible entities constructed in the shop and not just fleeting feelings conjured by a spell. With assistance from Phil Ek, the producer who helped Built To Spill and Modest Mouse become studio beasts, they flexed that muscle throughout the duration of Chutes Too Narrow without compromising the agile songwriting and arrangements that made their debut so special. The result was a landmark album for the band and its genre. Let’s revisit it together because “it’s hard to leave all these moments behind,” right?

Sub Pop’s renaissance and the indie-rock industrial complex were both gearing up by the time the Shins released Chutes Too Narrow in the fall of 2003, but the Shins were still operating like everymen. They were in a period of awkward music-biz adolescence. I remember going to see the band at a mid-sized concert hall in Cleveland the week after the album came out, walking up to James Mercer at the merch table in the lobby and asking him for an interview for a webzine I hadn’t even started yet, a request he courteously granted. Chutes Too Narrow had just recorded Sub Pop’s best first-week sales ever (later surpassed by the third Shins album, 2007′s Wincing The Night Away), but when we sat down to chat, Mercer seemed surprised that I knew about it and bewildered that the media reported on such things. He was still learning how to be a rock star, as unassuming as anyone who’s spent time with Shins records might expect. Neither was the band’s stage presence much to speak of, save for some goofing around by the later-embattled Marty Crandall. This was before Garden State put their career in hyperdrive, but they were still feasting on buzz at this point. For a band stepping into the big time, it was all quite quaint.

Musically, though, Chutes Too Narrow exudes the confidence and skill of old pros. The songs are still as humble and homespun as those from Oh, Inverted World, but they’re performed with passion as often as the self-conscious restraint that marked the Shins’ debut (check that “Hoo-oo-oo-oo!” on “So Says I”) and expertly rendered with a broader color palette befitting the ridiculous South Park-worthy album art. Credit the jump from Oh, Inverted World’s muddy sonics to Ek. As before, the record is laced with sounds as indelible as any of Mercer’s vocal parts: the rich pedal steel on “Gone For Good”; the elegant strings on “Saint Simon”; the descending and ascending twinkles that carry “Kissing The Lipless” to conclusion. Every little sound sticks with you. The difference is rather than blurring into a dream state, these details come through loud and clear and wide awake. Whether in the sparse balladry of “Young Pilgrims” or the churning gears and pogo-ing springs of the guitar machine “Turn A Square,” Chutes Too Narrow sounds incredible.

In keeping with the music’s gradual shuffle toward the spotlight, the lyrics are more relatable than inscrutable and always assigned to melodies that refuse to let go. If pop songwriting is all about attaching memorable phrases to unforgettable hooks, Mercer was on fire here. The country kiss-off “Gone For Good” is full of them, from “I found a fatal flaw in the logic of love and went out of my head” to “So get used to the lonesome/ Girl, you must atone some/ Don’t leave me no phone number there.” On the tremolo-shimmering acoustic ballad “Pink Bullets,” he croons, “Over the ramparts you tossed/ The scent of your skin and some foreign flowers.” Amidst the chaos of “Turn A Square,” he explodes, “My head’s like a kite/ When such a creature I sight.” And on the fiery “So Says I,” the hardest-rocking Shins song ever: “Cause this is nothing like we’d ever dreamt/ Tell Sir Thomas More we’ve got another failed attempt.” That Mercer pulled this off while leaping all over the genre spectrum was pure braggadocio.

This was artisanal indie rock before artisanal was a buzzword, yet it somehow played a huge part in making Mercer and company rock stars without the scare quotes that often accompany underground success. These might have been boutique pop songs, but they stuck with people, improbably cementing the Shins as the kind of indie-rock royalty that spawns waves of imitators. I should know; listening to Chutes Too Narrow today for the first time in years, I can trace a direct line from several tunes here to “originals” my old college band used to perform. And what novice songwriter wouldn’t want to rip off a sound like this one, so artful yet so approachable, so modest yet perplexingly irresistible? The Shins of Chutes Too Narrow were not musical or ideological innovators. They didn’t make epics (that’d kick in later with “Phantom Limb” and especially “Simple Song“) or channel raw, bracing emotion. They were not likely conquerors, so it feels odd to say this, but they really did change my life. I’m betting I’m not alone out there; share your memories of Chutes Too Narrow in the comments.

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Comments (21)
  1. As cliched as it sounds this album really did change my life, musically at least. I was starting to dabble in indie rock and slowly stumbling out of my jam band phase. I bought this cd based on a co-worker’s recommendation and the moment I heard James wail “You told us of you new life there” I was hooked. Phish, Widespread, and String Cheese were gone but The Shins, My Morning Jacket, and the drugs remained. I still love this album.

  2. Saint Simon, Phantom Limb, So Says I, Pink Bullets, and many more – - all connect me back to my adolescence. I’m only 19, but it feels like the Shins have been with me for eternity.

  3. I feel like this leaked months earlier than October 2003. When I got back from studying abroad at the beginning of that summer, my roommate already had the album on his computer, and Gone for Good was called A Call to Apathy, and for years I thought that’s what the song was actually called.

    But yeah, I listened to this album throughout my senior year of college. This means my graduation’s 10 year anniversary is coming. Boy, did that ever pass in the blink of an eye.

    • it did leak early. i remember seeing them in philly (before the album was out) and when they played “young pilgrims,” my friend shouted “best song on the new record!” and someone next to us was like “how do you know that??”

  4. My favourite album/band back in the tenth grade. I’ve gone on to discover other bands and love other records more than this one (nowadays I actually prefer Oh, Inverted World), but this was first album that I had ever really fallen in love with. And now it’s ten… wow

  5. I saw them live at CMJ about a week after this album came out. I’d been listening to the CD on repeat on the trains all week, and was feeling like the album was a pretty huge deal. When I got to the Sub Pop showcase, though, the hall was half empty. I guess most CMJ attendees were off seeing bands with more buzz, and those few of us crowded up front for the Shins were there because those songs really meant something to us.

  6. I remember liking it but being disappointed (it is actually excellent). I was so in love with Oh, Inverted World, it took me years to pivot, and I think it is still my third favorite Shins album. Weirdly, I loved Wincing the Night Away immediately, and Chutes Too Narrow is really nicely transitional between that and Oh Inverted World.

    • I still go back and forth between this one and Oh, Inverted World. It’s basically a Blue Album vs. Pinkerton situation where both are such great records and I doubt I’ll ever settle on one forever. Never liked Wincing nearly as much (though it’s certainly solid) and wasn’t really a fan of Port Of Morrow at all outside of the singles.

      • Right where you are on the Shins pretty much. I love the vague quality of Oh Inverted World…it’s like the songs can be about whatever you want them to be. Chutes Too Narrow is more literary and specific. But the quality has dropped off a bit since then…I cringe everytime I hear that line where he thanks his buddy for telling him the downtown would improve!

  7. probably just me, but i prefer the “muddy sonics” of oh inverted world. sounds like 60s to me. i loved playing it at work before they were widely known, and people would ask me if it was the beatles. think chutes is a very good album but it lacks that timeless quality.

    • Yeah, I worry that this review makes it sound like the production on Oh, Inverted World is a bad thing rather than just a different thing. I definitely like both feels for the Shins, but the difference on Chutes was striking, which is what I hoped to convey.

  8. One of my favorite albums. Really transports me to 2007–4 years after it came out, but the year I played it probably 40 times all the way through.

  9. I always called The Shins the underspoken Pink Floyd of their time. Never since then do I believe a band has made an album where you could earnestly feel every song. My sister passed this album my way in 2005 and entirely changed my vantage point of music and what it can do for a life. Glad to see it’s getting its due diligence.
    One song I feel never gets a strong amount of attention on Chutes is Young Pilgrims. I feel that stands as an incredibly independent track that sits on a bed of lyrics that can really carry a load of emotions. It stands today as my favorite Shins song because it’s a sound that connects with the idea of personal evolution.

    • I love the first two Shins albums, but there have been plenty of albums that are great from start to finish since then. You need to listen to more music. Also, other than the fact that they are both rock bands, the Shins and Pink Floyd have nothing in common.

  10. Wait, so this means I was a sophomore in college 10 years ago? Ugh.

  11. While I have fond memories of Chutes Too Narrow, it’s maddening to hear these songs and, without fail, I’m still forced in every cafe, restaurant, hotel, and Urban Outfitters, to hear these songs. The Shins are to coffee shop music as Warhol and Banksy are to art, a go-to, please-everyone (talented) median. It certainly speaks to their accessibility and skill as songwriters, but was there anyway to keep oneself from burning out these albums?

  12. I always related Oh Inverted World to the Beach Boys, and though I realize it’s not completely analogous, Chutes Too Narrow will always be their ‘Pet Sounds’ in my head.

  13. I was going through a serious music discovery phase when I was 23-24 (’06-’07), moving away from mainstream metal, and more towards classic rock and punk when I found this at my local library’s music section. I thought the album cover was cool, and the name sounded vaguely familiar, so I decided to check it out. It became my introduction to modern indie rock (along with Arcade Fire’s Funeral), and has been a great influence on me ever since, both as a music fan and a songwriter. One of my favourite albums from the 2000s, it always gets me in a good mood. Actually, just reading about it got me in a good mood.

  14. Time certainly gets away from us, doesn’t it? Did this thing and The Wrens Meadowlands really come out within a couple months? These are two of my top five albums of all time. The two albums may seem absolutely 180 degrees out from one another but further examination yields one constant…….both albums are meticulously crafted. This is what pop music should sound like.

    Blochead drops the mic.

  15. Right from the first time I heard this, it sounded like no other album in my extensive collection and I will always hold a soft spot for it. I’ve put it on now, for the first time in a while. It still sounds fantastic. I felt like I was the first person in my town (somewhere in the North of England) to hear them. I probably wasn’t of course, but I felt like they were a little secret that I was really pleased to turn a number of people onto.

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