Chutes Too Narrow. The Shins.
2003, Sub Pop. Producer: The Shins and Phil Ek
Purchased ca. 2004.
IN A NUTSHELL – Guitar pop, with a touch of folk. Soaring vocals wind through complex, memorable melodies, singing beautifully obscure lyrics about … well, they could be about whatever you want them to be about, but the great thing is that YOU WILL KNOW what they mean to you. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – it was a little more rockin’.
Like many Americans, and probably people all around the globe, I really enjoy a good amnesia story. I enjoy movies like Memento
and Spellbound, which offer a dramatic take on amnesia.
I’ve enjoyed episodes of favorite
and not-favorite sitcoms that have used the condition as a (somewhat) comedic device. Best of all, I enjoy true-life accounts, such as the amazing first-person story I recently heard on the radio of David Stuart Maclean’s battle with amnesia brought on by a medication’s side-effect – a story that he put into a new book, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, that I will be reading!
and the unexpected consequences of experimental medical techniques, I can attest to the fact that real-life amnesia is not so interesting or- frankly – as scary as modern entertainment would have you believe. It’s so mundane, in fact, that it happens every day to hundreds of millions of people around the world, and happens for years at a time, but they barely even mention it to one another.
I have two kids, teen(ish) aged now, born about 4.5 years apart. So just as I was recovering from amnesia from the first one, the second one arrived and – like that giant wave at the seashore that you can’t tell is behind you as you groggily stand up from being wiped out by the first one – clobbered me all over again.
There is so much that I do not remember from those early years. I know we had family routines, operating procedures that allowed us to get little kids fed, dressed, to school, daycare … but I don’t remember how we did it. I can’t even imagine trying to do it now.
We must have bought diapers, right? I do remember changing them … but did they just magically arrive in our house through some mysterious portal, along with all the footy-pajamas, bath time foam, sippy cups, Wiggles videotapes and Hulk Hands? And what did those little buggers DO all day, anyway? Play, I would imagine? They must have played. But did they just crawl all over the place? Wouldn’t they have bumped into stuff, fallen down steps and repeatedly hurt themselves? And, okay, I remember putting their Huggies underwear on them, but other than that, did they dress themselves? If so, what did they do about their feet? How smart were they? How did they communicate? And what did they eat? The more I think about it, the more my life with toddlers raises the same questions I have about early hominids.
All this amnesia is clearly caused by lack of sleep. If you don’t have kids, sometime – for kicks – spend 3 to 7 years sleeping only in three hour blocks at night, and 20 minute catnaps during the day once or twice a week, and after that time see if you remember anything. Lack of sleep is damaging to brains. Books have been written about this concept.
At some point, during my own 7 years of amnesia, I must have picked up the CD Chutes Too Narrow, by The Shins, and I sure am glad I did so. I don’t remember when, where, or how I even heard of this band. I know their music was featured in the movie Garden State but I also know I watched that movie just because I liked the CD, so that’s not how I heard of them. I did, for a time during the amnesia – in a last-ditch effort to maintain some tenuous attachment to modern coolness – subscribe to that old magazine Blender
and it’s possible I read about them there. I honestly don’t remember.
But somehow this CD is a part of my life, and even though pacifiers, internal GPS maps of neighborhood playgrounds, an appreciation of Caillou, and all my Laurie Berkner CDs are long gone, Chutes Too Narrow remains.
The band’s singer, songwriter, guitarist, (and only member of the band remaining from this album in today’s lineup) is James Mercer.
The thing you’ll notice first about him is his high voice. The album kicks off with “Kissing the Lipless,” a straight-ahead rock song, a bit on the folk-ish side, with a careening melody that requires an impressive singer to carry. And it’s a good example of the type of songs you’ll find on the album.
There are enough guitars in there to keep me interested, and that melody – again, the melody – is not simple, but still sing-along-worthy.
In a similar vein is “So Says I.”
There’s a 60s-ishness to both of these songs, with acoustic guitar carrying the song and electric guitar filling in. And there is Mercer’s voice again – soaring and gliding.
I started becoming interested in rock music in the heyday of the High-Pitched, Scrotal-Pinched Male Rock Singer. This trend in music probably started with Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, and the howling that is so prominent in songs like “The Immigrant Song.” Of course, Plant could do so much more with his voice than simply use the high register, but a wave of high-pitched wailers followed him. The 70s were the heyday, with bands like Rush, Yes, Kansas, Triumph, Queen, and Styx (who had a pair of singers … but not a single testicle between them. Apparently) …
Heavier late 70s/80s bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Scorpions … all these bands had singers that sounded like they’d aged out of the Castrati choir, but were able to put their attenuated secondary sex characteristics to lucrative use singing about drugs and chicks and warlocks and Satan in guitar rock bands.
So I grew accustomed to the high-pitched male vocalist, and for years sang along to all these artists in an Alvin and the Chipmunks style that sounded perfect in my head, but that I knew was more Rainbow Brite than Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. So I have a level of comfort with a high-pitched dude singer, and Mercer can really get up there. But he doesn’t wail – he’s more in the Roy Orbison/Michael Jackson vein, guys who just have high pitched voices.
“Turn A Square” is a rocker (well, a Shins rocker, anyway … not exactly AC/DC) with a catchy guitar riff that carries the song, and which features Mercer’s vocal range, offering a good jumping off point to discuss one of the reasons I love this album: lyrics.
I’m a fan of lyrics – all types of lyrics. I like lyrics that are serious and direct, such as “Yesterday,” by The Beatles. I like lyrics that are goofy and nonsense, like “I Am The Walrus,” by The Beatles. I like lyrics that are sophomoric and crude, like pretty much any David Lee Roth lyrics from Van Halen. I like minimalist lyrics – like in Nirvana’s “School,” which has 10 words in the whole song. As long as the lyrics are good, I like them. The difficulty is in determining what “good” is. “Good” to me just means they fit well with the song, and they aren’t too ridiculous. (Unless, such as with Van Halen, ridiculous lyrics are simply the best type to put with the music being played! But even ridiculous lyrics can be bad. See Album #99.)
But of all the lyrical styles, my favorite are probably the oblique kind, in which you hear what the singer is singing, and you know what the words mean, but they conjure an image in your mind that you can’t be sure was the intention of the singer.
It’s a touchy business, writing lyrics in this way, as whenever you leave something up to interpretation, you’re giving each and every maniac, or meth addict, or fundamentalist, or shop teacher or any other nut job out there free reign to come up with any meaning they see fit. And if you get too weird, and you’re not John “You Can Syndicate Any Boat You Row” Lennon, you can just turn everyone off completely. My favorite oblique lyricist is Donald Fagan, from Steely Dan, and Mercer’s lyrics have a lot in common with his.
Mercer does a wonderful job, I think, of conjuring images and letting the listener take over meanings. “Turn a Square” has nice lines about meeting a girl wearing tennis shorts, and the effect it has on him
“Just a glimpse of an ankle and I/
React like it’s 1805”
but then it strangely turns into a lament about the effect she has on him:
“It gets worse every time that we talk/
Can’t afford to be just one in a flock/
But that’s your lot/
When you’re after such a well-made lock/
Who was classically trained to give up”
Frankly, I have no friggin idea what this all means. But it sounds good when he sings it, and it makes me want to sing along. I kind of get the feeling from the song that he met a girl, likes her, but is unsure if the effect she has on him is good or bad … but for all I know the lyric could be about a good bowl of chili he once ate.
Almost all of the songs have a quality whereby I want to sing along, and I try to sing along, but there are so many words packed in, and their meanings don’t help give a context to what I should be singing about, so I end up listening to, say, “Kissing the Lipless” and belting out, “You told us of your new life there,” followed by mumbling “with the bum-de-bumming rounds/ or ba-bum-de something sound/with a secret to be found/ defrayed remembrance/ever seeking something some-something doo-de-criminal.” Then finishing it up with a hearty, “it’s HARD TO LEAVE ALL THESE MO-MENTS BEHIND!!”
But even the obscure lyrics have some nice gems. The song “Young Pilgrims,” a soft acoustic song,
contains the nice lines
But I learned fast how to keep my head up ’cause I/
Know I got this side of me that/
Wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just/
Fly the whole mess into the sea.
Maybe it should be worrisome that I connect with those lyrics.
“Pink Bullets” is another beautiful, mellow song. In this song, the lyrics tell of a romance that ended too soon (I think):
When our kite lines first crossed, we tied ’em into knots/
And to finally fly apart, we had to cut them off/
Since then it’s been a book you read in reverse/
So you understand less as the pages turn/
All of the songs, both slow and fast, blend the instrumentation perfectly. Acoustic guitar drives most of the songs, but the electric guitar adds nice fills and solos. A few of the songs are embellished with strings, and keyboards are thrown into some, but it’s basically a guitar record. Guitars and melodies – I think you’ll notice a theme through my 100 albums. Guitars and melodies.
I can’t remember getting this CD. But songs like “Saint Simon” and “Fighting in a Sack” have stuck with me. I remember them more than I do lullabyes, legos, and La-La-Loopsy. And I didn’t even have to tattoo the reasons why all over my body!
Kissing the Lipless
Mine’s Not a High Horse
So Says I
Fighting in a Sack
Turn a Square
Gone for Good
Those to Come