I’m swamped at work this week working on a big D-Day survivor profile for Sunday’s paper so posting is going to be slimmer, but to feed the rabid fan base out there (hi, mom!) here’s a review I wrote last fall of the new CD by one of my favorite bands, The Shins.
Check ‘em out if you haven’t, Nik-bob gives ‘em high accolades.
Meet The Shins: Portland’s great pop music hope
It’s rare these days that you find something that feels truly new in pop music.
I first encountered The Shins at Seattle’s Bumbershoot music festival in 2002, and during their concert was wowed by their cozy, hummable sound. I soon picked up their sparkling 2001 debut CD, “Oh, Inverted World,” and put it into heavy rotation.
The Shins aren’t a whole new genre, exactly, but they manage to splice some of music’s past and present into a sonic stew that is offbeat, fresh and undeniably catchy.
The Shins whip together a giddy blend of smart wordplay, tight harmonies and jangling guitars that evokes everything from early R.E.M. to the Beach Boys. They’ve become an underground, word-of-mouth success now on the verge of breaking through.
The Shins started out in Albuquerque, N.M., but have since relocated to Portland. Their newly released second album on Sub Pop Records, “Chutes Too Narrow,” was recorded there in lead singer/songwriter James Mercer’s basement studio.
“Chutes,” like its predecessor, is a compact record, just over a half-hour, but with a plethora of pop pleasure crammed into its margins.
The Shins work in layers, with songs that grab you with plucky hooks but then sink in with secretive and fascinating lyrics, and flurries of orchestration that only come out on repeat listening.
There’s beauty a-plenty on “Chutes,” such as the sweeping buildup of the kickoff track, “Kissing The Lipless,” with Mercer’s rock star wail, or the marvelous two-minute bouncy first single “So Says I.” They branch out into an alt-country sound on “Gone For Good,” while “Turn A Square” has a keyboard-pounding intensity that makes it sound like a lost Top 40 hit from 1982.
The open and sunny production on this CD contrasts interestingly with “Inverted World,” which had a murky, deep mix that sometimes made it sound like you were hearing the record through gauze. While that otherworldly echo worked in a lot of ways, the clarity of “Chutes” really lets you feel Mercer’s soaring voice.
It’s a bright album on first listen, yet the lyrics, when they sink in, are often searching and wistful.
Mercer’s songs are almost as densely laid as those of Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello, ripe with rattled-off imagery that seems like coded journal entries: “Though the saints dubs us divine in ancient fading lines their sentiment is just as hard to pluck from the vine.”
Now, wordy stuff like that could easily come off as pretentious as early 1970s prog-rock, but the bouncy rhythm and ease in Mercer’s voice give even the most tongue-twisting of lyrics a sprightly spin. The “la la la”’s dotting the gorgeous “Saint Simon” make it as cheery an ode to fatalism as you’ll find.
“Have I left my home just to whine in this microphone?” Mercer sings at one point.
The fascinating “Chutes Too Narrow” shows that The Shins have a real kick to them, and as a bright spot in the Northwest music scene, they’re a band to watch.