Saturday, July 16, 2011
27. The Shins: Chutes Too Narrow
The inspiration for this post (the last one until mid-August...vacation time!) came from my five year old son watching one of his favorite shows, Yo Gabba Gabba! Floating through the house to my sensitive eardrums from midway through this 2009 episode of space-pop meets life-lesson-via-robots kids show was a performance by The Shins (singing "It's Okay, Try Again"). Catchy little song...got me thinking about the band and its current state of hiatus. Debuting as The Shins in 2001 (it was actually a deviation from frontman James Mercer's band Flake Music), they gained praise and popularity immediately. The band's following continued to grow throughout the decade (including a big boost when Natalie Portman's character Sam touted the band to Zach Braff in the 2004 movie Garden State. She plays "New Slang" from their debut Oh, Inverted World and assures him "You gotta hear this one song. It'll change your life...I swear."). They released three wonderfully different albums, and then, James Mercer, in a chest-thumping, alpha-male, let's-not-forget-whose-band-this-is move fired half of the band. I don't know...I guess I can't speak for him, but he then went on to form Broken Bells with Danger Mouse, and announced replacements for the sacked Shins members, keyboardist/guitarist Marty Crandall and drummer Jesse Sandoval.
All this leads me to the old adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". It seemed to apply in the case of The Shins. On the heels of a highly successful debut album (2001's Oh, Inverted World) the expectations for the band were extremely high...in the eyes of fans and critics alike. Oh, Inverted World was universally and uniformly enjoyed and this was a band primed for the all too common sophomore slump. That, however, was not to be. The second album, Chutes Too Narrow (2003) traveled down a different avenue than did the debut. The Shins exchanged the hazy, lo-fi, hushed-reverb sounds of Oh, Inverted World for a more guitar rich, crisp complexity. On Chutes... Mercer's voice takes center-stage (whereas the beautiful harmonies, at times, seemed to amalgamate with the other instruments on the previous recording). And it's a voice worth listening to...a smooth falsetto, yet filled with nervous tension. He has an incredible vocal range and makes the most of it in these forty minutes...especially on the first track, "Kissing The Lipless", where he takes your ears to another place in the line "You told us of your new life there".
Another standout track is the first single "So Says I", a hard-rocking pop tune that picks up where Oh, Inverted World left off. "Mine's Not A High Horse", "Saint Simon", and two slower songs "Young Pilgrims" and "Pink Bullets" are also favorites of mine. The strangest of these, "Saint Simon" is magnificent. It transitions seemlessly from unequivocal pop hooks to melancholic choral sections (complete with strings) and coalesces into an aural masterpiece.
Apparently, The Shins are back. The new lineup is slated to play a few festivals this year. I'm hoping they can pick right up where they crashed, but having to replace Crandall and Sandoval is a big blow. For all of Mercer's talents, he's not much of a stage presence. All of the crowd interactions were orchestrated by Marty Crandall at center stage while James Mercer planted himself off to the side (which I always thought was odd). Here's a video of The Shins performing "So Says I" on Letterman followed by a great live performance of "Kissing The Lipless" in Sydney, Australia. Much like The Shins, I'll be taking a break from the blog as we're heading to the Netherlands for a bit. Unlike The Shins, there will be no firings or lineup changes in my household.