Some of the most prominent releases of the last few years have fallen into two categories:
1.Forward-thinking innovative, experimental masterpieces
2.Charmingly retro-sounding throwback albums
While both of those are all good and fine, they can leave something to be desired. Today’s Trans-Europe Express is yesterday’s Trans. And today’s Lust for Life is yesterday’s Lust for Life. Either way, in enough time, you, too, will be bored of these albums and will be reaching for your old favorites.
This seems to be a problem among bands today — nobody is making timeless music. Nobody’s making the next Pet Sounds, Oddessey and Oracle or Astral Weeks. Certainly there are bands that have the pretense to attempt to make such grand pop orchestras, but nobody has the songwriting chops to pull it off. That is, until the Shins came along.
When we last heard from The Shins, they were in Albuquerque, fresh out of Flake Music and bathed in reverb. This time around, they’ve moved to the Pacific Northwest and enlisted the aid of regional producer/engineer/genius Phil Ek, who gave Chutes Too Narrow the gloss it needed to stand out among the legions of retro-pop.
“Kissing the Lipless” begins the album with some handclaps and a collective “woo!” From the get-go, it’s apparent that Chutes Too Narrow, like many of 2003’s best releases, is a break-up album filled with the highs and lows associated with tumultuous relationships. Frontman James Mercer sings, “you’ve got too much to wear on your sleeves/it’s got too much to do with me/and secretly I want to bury in the yard/the grey remains of a friendship scarred.” Despite its bittersweetness, “Kissing the Lipless” is an oddly celebratory opener, as immediate and enjoyable as 2001’s “Caring is Creepy.”
From there the album transitions between styles, without diversifying too much as to alienate the loyal Shins fanatic. “Mine’s Not a High Horse” recalls Echo and the Bunnymen, “So Says I” is jangly rock and “Young Pilgrims” is a catchy but subdued acoustic tune. “Saint Simon” is where the band shines. It is this song in which Mercer truly shows off his lyrical prowess and penchant for wordplay. In a rumination on the mystery of love, Mercer sings, “after all these implements and texts designed by intellect/we’re vexed to find evidently there’s still so much that hides.” Once the song transitions into the chorus, the song transforms from nifty little tune to the sound of pure joy. Mercer and keyboardist Marty Crandall share “la-la-la” harmonies that would make the perfect soundtrack to a frolic in the park. Wes Anderson should give these guys a call.
Mercers relationship woes continue through the rollicking “Fighting in a Sack,” the melancholy “Pink Bullets” and the New Pornographers-ish “Turn a Square.” “Gone For Good” sees the band attempting (and succeeding at) country, complete with lap steels and true country sadness.
The album closer, “Those to Come,” is a gentle, soothing ballad that closes the album much in the way that relationships end. After all the fighting and questioning and denial, one has to move on and find closure, but not with this record. It’s 34 minutes of the sweetest pain ever caught on reel-to-reel. Feel free to experience it again and again, because it’s music like this that stands the test of time.
Various artists – Rushmore
Kinks – Village Green Preservation Society
New Pornographers – Electric Version
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.