Some fans of indie-pop sensation the Shins would fess up to declaring a golden future: Band makes stellar debut album. Band opens for the likes of Modest Mouse and Guided by Voices. Band springboards off dozens of comparisons to Brian Wilson, and, upon pocketing duckets after selling "New Slang" for a McDonald's commercial, uses all of remaining budget to make this century's Pet Sounds. This sophomore gem would reveal 2001's Oh, Inverted World to be merely a blueprint of the pop glory to come.
Too much too fast? Yeah, but fans shouldn't feel let down by Chutes Too Narrow, only reminded not to always get ahead of themselves. It could have been much worse, because instead of succumbing to some cliched notion of "artistic development," James Mercer and company have in humble fashion ironed out their kinks. (These kinks were really unnoticeable before, which speaks very well of Chutes Too Narrow.)
Take Marty Crandall's keyboard, which produced the catchy hooks of the debut's "Caring Is Creepy" and "Girl on a Wing." This time around, the band's sound is no less psychedelic, only the keys don't stifle Mercer's guitar melodies, which now shine all the more. In fact, all the players have cut back on their musical contributions; now Mercer is no longer forced to strain his high, thin voice over layers of instruments.
The frontman's dense and dark lyrics have also become easier to swallow, in contrast to some of the misanthropic daydreaming of Inverted World. Although you can now start a running count of the dismemberments in the Shins' catalogue (and exactly why did McDonald's pick up a song with the line that all "bakers cut their thumbs and bleed into their buns"?), Mercer's words on Chutes are less gloomy but more focused. Even with the bold declarations ("We are a brutal kind" sings Mercer in "So Says I"), the lyrics just end up just being a great source of tension to their sunny melodies, which gloom can't come close to penetrating.
While the band has addressed these minor gaffes, it has also still managed to reproduce some of the debut's magic. There are certainly no carbon copies, but there is some interesting correspondence between the first and second albums. Chutes opener "Kissing the Lipless," which slowly crescendos to a volcanic chorus, mirrors the epic scope of "Caring Is Creepy"; and much like the first album's "One by One All Day," "Mine's Not a High Horse" settles into a skittering groove aided by Jesse Sandoval's steady drumming.
Charting the future course of a band is a risky endeavor, but it's tempting with what the Shins' music has promised thus far. The plaintive "Gone for Good" suggests the group could turn pure country and never look back. Quieter acoustic numbers like "New Slang," and now "Young Pilgrims" and album closer "Those to Come," hint that Mercer has a four-track masterpiece in him. If that were the case, these silly Brian Wilson comparisons would become a thing of the distant past.
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