The Shins

Arguably no other indie pop release this year is as highly anticipated as the Shins' sophomore effort, Chutes Too Narrow. In 2001 the quartet seemingly came out of nowhere -- well, Albuquerque, New Mexico -- with their debut Oh, Inverted World, which was praised and revered by the skinny, geeky, ironic T-shirt-wearing set that holds the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted in high esteem. Infectious and unforgettable, their brand of pop remains properly peculiar, quirky, and skewed.

Chutes Too Narrow is lean with ten songs in 33 minutes. It continues their knack for pleasant, jangly guitars accented heavily by xylophone, keyboard, and organ flourishes. The big difference here is that they keep their fingers off the reverb button, freeing singer James Mercer's voice from the cavernous, echo-laden vocals -- reminiscent of a young Brian Wilson -- that permeated their debut. He alternates among a country-tinged croon on "Gone for Good," Brit-pop falsetto for "Saint Simon," and the occasional guttural yet tuneful scream on the album opener, "Kissing the Lipless." On the latter, Mercer's plaintive, soft-spoken acoustic introduction explodes into a wail 50 seconds later. "You told us of your new life/Where you've got someone coming around," he sings as cymbals crash and scratchy guitar kicks in. It's as exciting and frenetic an opener as the group could have offered.

The Shins haven't abandoned their penchant for culling mechanics and melodies from the best English pop bands, from the Kinks and the Zombies to the Smiths and Suede. The bouncy, danceable "So Says I" recalls early Supergrass circa I Should Coco, minus the amphetamines. And the fuzzy "Fighting in a Sack" wins the prize for the Shins' most rocking song ever. They pack more hooks in two minutes and twenty seconds than most power pop bands do on a whole album. "Saint Simon" is one of the few songs not dominated by guitar strum; it's bolstered by dreamy "la-la-la" harmonies and spacy psychedelic organs. "Gone for Good" is a welcome reprise of the tumbleweed twang of "New Slang" from their debut. It's safe to say the Shins will maintain their fan base with Chutes Too Narrow.

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Jeff Skruck