Discovering 2001’s Oh, Inverted World, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Shins came bubblegum-wrapped in the refried acid revivalism of Athens’ Elephant 6 label. But if this was bubblegum, its flavour was curiously long-lasting. Repeated listens?and it was a record that was weirdly addictive, a word-of-mouth hit to the extent that songs ended up in burger commercials?suggested a greater depth, a band operating in the moods that opened up on the soundtrack and in the world of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore: an eerie “Autumn Almanac” kind of ambience.
Chutes Too Narrow works the same trick, better. You don’t expect progression from such evident classicists, but there’s a new clarity, poise and refinement. If the first record was overly fond of its own reverby shimmer, Chutes… sparkles simply and truly. James Mercer’s Shinsongs are curious contraptions: Byzantine and bittersweet, intricate without being prissy or arch. They’re a kind of transatlantic mirror to Belle And Sebastian (Murdoch and Mercer share a talent for elaborate melodies), before the Caledonian dreamers became so thoroughly arranged beyond feeling.
You can hear the band’s Anglophilia not only in the moon-bleached Bunnymen guitar that spangles “Mine’s Not A High Horse” or the Kinksy krunch of “Turn A Square”, but also in a romantic irony scarce in modern American guitar pop. On a label (Sub Pop) and from a town (Portland) now forever tied to the wracked authentic anguish of Cobain and Smith, The Shins keep their distance, but are no less affecting: “Gone For Good” and “Saint Simon” are as coolly evocative as prime Go-Betweens. Indeed, Chutes Too Narrow is often the album you wish a reunited Forster and McLennan had made: 10 perfect songs constructed from wit, electricity and the broken bones of the heart.