Among the summer of loves, the magic buses and the motley gathering that was Haight-Ashbury; the 60’s were a glorious time for swirling pop melodies. Reaching an unsurpassed frenzy in The Beatles invasion and The Beach Boys’ ride into pop tradition, the high-arching vocal swoons and the wonderfully unusual harmonies forever left their mark on musicians and fans alike. Embracing timeless reverberation, Revolver and Pet Sounds are both spurred by their undying quality. Crafted with rich orchestration and a certain tunefulness rarely seen, they are unique in their brilliant universal appeal.
And perhaps, one of the few artists today who genuinely evoke this sort of memorable, long lasting allure of that double dose in ‘66 is Portland by-way-of Albuquerque popsters The Shins. Perched upon a burgeoning wave that swelled from 2001’s Oh! Inverted World, their sophomore effort successfully outshines their previous work and in an amalgam of joyous wails and twirls, vaults them into heights of distinction amongst their peers. Boosted by the album’s far improved production value, James Mercer’s means of constructing stunning song arrangements and his ability to glide them below his voice’s mottled fascination is lifted far beyond the promising milieu set some few years ago. The sparse nature of the instrumentation, stripped down but incredibly affecting, remains unshackled in their revitalizing confidence.
Take “Kissing the Lipless” as an example of this strutting poise; riled up and fantastically potent, the injection of Mercer’s high-pitched howl along with the song’s sonic crashing makes for one ideal album-opening greeting. It segues nicely into “Mine’s Not a High Horse”, a down-toned humming into floral acoustics and atmospheric synthesizers that makes a play for the sweetness in melody. In the album’s lead single “So Says I”, the band embarks on a far loftier march into manic rock beats, but buoyed again by Mercer’s piercing falsetto, its tramping swagger is the merry kind; one that surprisingly suits the faraway lyrical imagery penned in a wandering, almost chattering manner (“An address to the golden door I was strumming on a stone again pulling teeth from the pimps of gore”). Oh what lavish fairytale narrative!
Far from being known for a mere tune, Lennon and Wilson are artists recognized for their grand body of work. And if for some unforeseen, catastrophically shallow reason Mercer is famed for a single composition (Lennon’s “Imagine” is certainly worth this debate, at least from a solo career perspective), it would be “Saint Simon”. And while they have just sharpened their receptors of scrutiny (and judging from this, a very healthy future lies ahead) one cannot simply overlook a truly great song amongst a collection of really good ones. With intrigue and sophistication reserved for those upper-pantheon writers, the song is a delicate marriage of subtly pleasing tones, regal orchestral romance and distinct vocal triumph kept to sweet “la la la’s” and towering choral elegance. Let it be known, there is but a superb songwriter amongst the willow trees and grassy green.
How little wrong it seems they do; from the swinging beat-pop of “Fighting in a Sack” to the engulfing ravine of “Pink Bullets”, the songs are as brightly engaging as they are profoundly introspective. With Mercer’s scribe-like wordplay and charismatic process of culling together morsels of ageless qualities with the finer points of being accessible, he too perhaps, will someday be mentioned among our most prized authors of song. And along with him, The Shins have over the course of two releases, rightly etched themselves in pop’s Rosetta stone. Enigmatically tracing the greatest of pop roots with quenching success, Chutes Too Narrow is perfectly stated, and undoubtedly, a masterpiece.
(Sub Pop Records)