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The Shins, ‘Chutes Too Narrow’ (Sub Pop)

When the Shins’ 2001 debut, Oh, Inverted World, catapulted the Albuquerque, New Mexico-based indie-rock Anglophiles to the top of the middle, not everybody boarded the bandwagon. In an interview, Sebadoh guitarist (and Sub Pop labelmate) Jason Loewenstein slammed the band’s “terrible, terrible music.” Even the Shins’ hometown alt weekly turned its back on them like Paul Sorvino at the end of GoodFellas, running a bitter editorial titled “McShins, New Corporate Suck-ass” after the Inverted song “New Slang” turned up in a McDonald’s TV spot. Guilty of little but being cute and playing catchy tunes, the Shins suddenly faced peer backlash worthy of the battles in hip-hop.

On Chutes Too Narrow, singer/guitarist James Mercer alludes to the friends his band’s success has cost him:”We’ve taken on a climb / And it’s long enough to put the best of us on our backs / Walking up a slide / And there are those we know who’d have us five miles off the track.” Armed with a newfound (or, at least, newly directed) cynicism, Mercer staggers from self-doubt to self-righteousness with each song, concealing razor blades inside his caramel-apple anthems. “I know I’ve got this side of me / That wants to grab the yoke from the pilot / And just fly the whole mess into the sea,” Mercer sing-songs on “Young Pilgrims,” like Barney the dinosaur with a broken bottle poised over his wrist.

But Mercer and the band (keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jessie Sandoval, and new bassist Dave Hernandez) put on a brave face, smiling while they work out the Kinks (“Turn a Square”) and walk with Zombies (“Saint Simon”). All the while, Mercer’s voice gets higher than a P.A. on a Method Man/Redman movie set. Like fellow travelers the New Pornographers, the Shins are reverent and referential, practically documenting their source material with footnotes, while acting like they own it. You can hear them reaching for an escape from all the fronting and backbiting, desperate for a spoonful of sugar to coat the bitterest of pills.