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Pop band The Shins’ sophomore release far outshines debut

Ryan Rafferty | Wednesday, November 5, 2003

What is it with sophomore albums? Musicians that create a stunning and groundbreaking debut album are seemingly never able to recreate the magic again on their sophomore release. They give the impression that they have just exhausted their creative juices. Every once in a while, however, a band comes along with a spectacular debut album and has just enough juice to create an adequate sophomore album.

The Shins are not one of these bands. They are the even rarer breed of musicians that has creative juice coming out of their ears. James Mercer, The Shins’ lead singer, and company use this juice to craft an album of astonishing stature that blows their debut album out of the water.

The Shins’ debut album Oh! Inverted World was an instantaneous success. The album was stunning in its bare essential musicianship and Beach Boys-esque lyrics. Oh! Inverted World was certainly a catchy, sunny, bright pop album, but there was something missing. Although it was a fantastic album, it lacked variety, and it seemed Mercer was holding back some of his musical abilities. The Shins’ sophomore release Chutes Too Narrow is the answer to that album.

While Oh! Inverted World may have lacked variety, Chutes Too Narrow radiates variety. The instruments previously weren’t allowed to exist on their own; now the reverb has been turned off and every guitar riff and keyboard melody exists in its own corner of your speaker. Mercer’s voice soars over every song, layering equally emotional verses with fun, catchy choruses. Every song on Chutes Too Narrow exists by itself, with a distinct melody and feeling that was not present on Oh! Inverted World. On that album, the songs seemed to blur together. The Shins have learned how to pay attention to detail on their sophomore release and it shows in every aspect of the music.

Chutes Too Narrow carries a similar lyrical theme throughout, but the songs all have a distinct musical style. The album’s first single, “So Says I,” sounds very similar to the songs on the Shins’ debut album but with a fuller, richer sound. “Turn a Square” sounds like Revolver era Beatles with a dash of Lemonheads and a hint of Radiohead. “Fighting in a Sack” is a fast-paced power pop tune with a harmonica thrown in at the end for good measure, which gives the song a Bob Dylan feel. “Gone For Good” features a lap slide guitar played in the style of early Uncle Tupelo. The best track on Chutes Too Narrow is the transcendent “Saint Simon,” featuring a dreamy, haunting chorus played on violins and keyboards with Mercer’s towering vocals filling in the gaps.

Overall, Chutes Too Narrow is an amazing album. The songs sound eerily familiar yet eccentrically original. The Shins’ sophomore album builds upon the musical groundwork laid on Oh! Inverted World, creating a tower of music built with the most intricate and detail-oriented musical bricks. Mercer’s vocals place the airtight roof on this soaring album. He showcases his vocal range wonderfully and sings with an entertaining, luminous passion. Chutes Too Narrow is the perfect album to brighten up any cold, dreary South Bend winter day. The Shins have successfully avoided the sophomore slump and set the bar for every sophomore album to come.

Contact Ryan Rafferty at rraffert@nd.edu