Guitar-driven pop rock in the new century has almost gone the way of jazz. Relegated to the fringes and operating on sounds borrowed from the distant past, it now appeals only to vinyl fetishists and ’60s-obsessives. Which is not to say the genre isn’t still spawning great bands. What’s refreshing about the Shins is that they recall past finery (Beatles, Beach Boys, Big Star, Badfinger and other B-bands) without quite resembling any one of them. Songwriter, singer and guitarist James Mercer might be the best pop-rock classicist since Rivers Cuomo; like the similarly shy Weezer frontman, Mercer wrests enduring pleasures out of seemingly straightforward, simple songs. His work is comforting, familiar and fresh at the same time.
The Shins (which also includes keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval and bassist Dave Hernandez) actually began as a side project to the long-running Flake Music, which released records as early as 1993 and put a song called “The Shins” on their 1999 full-length, When You Land Here, It’s Time to Return. Mercer and Sandoval started the Shins as a vacation from Flake Music, but playtime soon took precedence as the project began gaining greater acclaim than the duo’s main band.
The title of the quartet’s first longplayer, Oh, Inverted World (vinyl on Omnibus, which also released the Shins’ earliest efforts, including the four-song Nature Bears a Vacuum 7-inch), is telling. It suggests an alternate reality where this kind of music is considered commercial. Tracks like “Know Your Onion” and the standout “New Slang” might once have been hits, and their warm-hearted openness suggests the creators wish they still could be. In many ways the record feels like a dream, a fuzzy lo-fi one that is slightly out of focus, like a buried memory rescued just before being forgotten forever. The free-spirited “Know Your Onion” is like your most treasured, long-lost high school experience manifested on disc. The most dreamlike track, “One by One All Day,” is a hypnotic assemblage of ringing guitars, Mercer’s mesmerizing vocal and a trail of sighing “la la las” that could stretch on forever and not wear out their welcome. Far from the painful self-consciousness of so many of their peers, the Shins have an understated sincerity that is hard not to like.
While the group hails from the media unfriendly city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, it was that openness that helped make them an overnight Amerindie success. Critics rushed to make Beach Boys comparisons but, thankfully, the Shins didn’t take the overdone Elephant 6/High Llamas approach of piling on Mellotrons and tricky time changes. Instead, the charming innocence of a song like “Girl Inform Me” belongs to the earlier, wide-eyed Beach Boys era. But while the classic spirit is there, Mercer is no imitator: his short, sweet and memorable songs clearly are his own.
Oh, Inverted World would have been a hard act for anyone to follow, but Chutes Too Narrow shows the Shins to have been worthy of the initial praise. Leaner and more rocking than its predecessor, Chutes Too Narrow also has stranger, more complicated songs. The baroque “Saint Simon” has a breathtaking arrangement, ending in a vocal coda that lifts the song to the heavens. Snappy rockers like “Fighting in a Sack” and “Turn on a Square” bring much-needed scrappiness to the band’s manner, while the stark middle-of-the-night ballad “Gone for Good” has Mercer doing darkness as well as he does light. Crandall proves himself an important supporting player with bubbly keyboards that lift the otherwise passable “Mine’s Not a High Horse” into A-side territory. (Crandall’s affable personality also carries the day during Shins shows, where Mercer is more content to slip into the background.) All in all, the album is an ideal sequel to a strong debut: enough of the same plus new elements to indicate forward creative motion.