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The Shins

Chutes Too Narrow
Sub Pop

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The past is irrelevant, the future unimportant. What matters is the present, in its malleable entirety. What one might consider a lesson in nonlinear thinking is what others would call the double-edged sword of success.

 

Simply put, there are two words every auspicious band fears upon completion of a second album: sophomore slump. Half ancient voodoo curse, half rain cloud looming overhead, these words can cast long shadows, and have broken those lacking the fortitude to bear its burden for the long haul -- or the third album, whichever comes first.

 

Something special happened to the relatively unknown Albuquerque-slash-Portland band The Shins in 2001. When The Shins recorded Oh, Inverted World they couldn't have known how beloved and praised it would be by the masses. Free from expectations, Oh, Inverted World was a near-perfect pop masterpiece. The "New Slang" jingle, heard on the background of an ill-contrived McDonald's commercial, made the album an omnipresent success -- if not a temporary sellout. Although the subsequent backlash by indie elitists -- considered core fans -- was quick and acerbic, it was as quickly forgiven solely on the merits of James Mercer's ability to craft a perfect pop song without compromising complexity or endearing sentimentalities.

 

The band's sophomore release, Chutes Too Narrow, doesn't disappoint per se, but similarly it doesn't surpass the band's previous work -- something expected of talent of this magnitude. Resting solely on its own merits, the album is a broad-ranged pop gem. Moreover, stand-alone songs like the lap-steel tinged "Gone For Good," reminiscent of the Sweetheart of the Rodeo-era Byrds, and the sweeping melodies and orchestral instrumental accompaniments of "St. Simon," prove this second release can also pack some of the same demonstrative punch as the previous. Mercer is still an incredibly competent songwriter and lyricist, painting images and moods often constructed with unique metaphorical phrases.

 

Up against previous accomplishments, it's expected, if not accepted, that the Shins' second attempt wouldn't compare. To give due credit, the Shins' sophomore release is a consistently strong collection of songs, a noble attempt any band would be happy to claim for its own. What lessens the intended effect is that the Shins are victims of their own successes: Slightly worse for the wear, feeling the pressure from unrealistic expectations, but realizing those are nothing that can't be overcome with time ... and a reactionary quixotic third album.

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