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.