The Shins "Chutes Too Narrow" - Retrospective Review
In 2003, we in the indie and alternative world were all blessed with a plethora of great albums, making 2003 one of the best years of indie and alternative rock. We were given Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie, Rooms on Fire by The Strokes, Elephant by The White Stripes, Hail to the Thief by Radiohead and Dear Catastrophe Waitress by Belle and Sebastian. Steely Dan even dropped an album! Another indie rock gem we were graced with was Chutes Too Narrow, the second studio album by The Shins. Chutes Too Narrow took the gentle strengths of their debut Oh Inverted World and brought the volume up a tad and set the lo/fi beginnings of their discography to the side. Chutes was a massive steppingstone to the alternative rock climax The Shins would see in their next record Wincing the Night Away while doing so holding close to the bouncing Pacific-Northwest indie of the time, and all the delicacy of James Mercer's lyrics from the first record. We were left with a timeless record showcasing noticeably more musicianship, better production quality and in an interesting way, an early precursor to the roots rock revival seen at the end of the decade with groups like Mt. Joy, Caamp, Houndmouth and The Avett Brothers (although this is as close to roots rock as The Shins would ever come).
Timeless tracks such as Gone for Good, and So Says I live on through indie and folk rock radio and playlists while some of the deeper cuts remain hidden treasures for Shins fans to sneakily throw on the speakers when they have the aux. Phil Ek's masterful job as producer paired with Mercer's ear for pleasant sound left us with all sorts of cool musical arrangements, especially the beautiful string arrangements on Saint Simon which earned the group (particularly studio violinist Annemarie Ruljancich) a Grammy nomination for best recording package. Gone For Good and its pedal steel guitar set it eyes on a unique roots rock and folk-rock sound really only heard by The Shins on this record as does Young Pilgrims, minus the pedal steel of course.
Some of the deeper cuts such as Turn a Square start to play with the louder rockin' sound The Shins will master on their previous record. If you have not checked it out yet, take a look at this Girl on the Wing/Turn a Square/Your Love (by The Outfield) medley from 2017 which Mercer describes as "the rock block" portion of the show. In that vein, Kissling the Lipless found itself as an important point in the discography of the band in which after the soft vocal/acoustic guitar verse which starts the song, the production team turns the Volume WAY up at the start of the next verse. This moment surpasses even the loudest and most rock forward parts of Oh Inverted World. With this being the opening track on the record it's epic, and hints towards the direction the band is about to start going.
The record is worth the full spin every time, but is not quite the stylistic and creative peak that their next album was. Chutes Too Narrow finds itself just short of the evolved musicianship, songwriting, and chemistry of Wincing the Night Away when you look at their discography as a whole. Of course though, if you lean more towards the folk rock versus the alternative rock, this might be your favorite of The Shins catalogue. This was a great album and you'll find plenty of these songs among their best ever, yet the record missed a lot of the popularity it should have received at the time. By the end of the decade though people knew how good the album was and eventually received much of the acclaim it deserved, once the band really took off. A true timeless mesh of indie rock, folk rock, and roots rock.