Tag Archives: guitars

98th Favorite: Chutes Too Narrow, by The Shins


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
memento and Spellbound, which offer a dramatic take on amnesia.

I’ve enjoyed episodes of favorite
skipper 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!

It should come as no shock that the Hollywood versions of the disease are much different than what happens in real life. And while it may be fun to watch movies about CIA-created assassins


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.

It is called being-a-parent-of-infants-and-toddlers. It is well-documented.

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, bath foamsippy cups, Wiggles videotapes and Hulk Hands? 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.

early man

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.sleep

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, 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, 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 chips 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.

mj roy

“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. 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.

shins 2

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!

memento tattoos

Kissing the Lipless
Mine’s Not a High Horse
So Says I
Young Pilgrims
Saint Simon
Fighting in a Sack
Pink Bullets
Turn a Square
Gone for Good
Those to Come

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100th Favorite: Boys and Girls In America, by The Hold Steady


Boys and Girls in America. The Hold Steady.
2006, Vagrant Records. Producer: John Agnello

album cover 100

Driving guitar rock with a 70s feel. Great, wordy lyrics tell stories about young adults, warts and all.
Singer might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Would have been higher on the list if I’d listened to it more
– it got overshadowed in my collection by other albums by this band.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This record is by my favorite band from the “new life” era that was created for me when my “old life” was suddenly, and coldly, ripped away by the announcement
expectant – and the subsequent associated all-encompassing thoughts, plans, activities, and emotions – that my wife was pregnant.

In the late 90s, my wife and I lived in San Francisco, in a neighborhood that had been named among “the hippest” in the US and Canada by the Utne Reader. Probably NOT because of the fact that we lived there, but who knows? We are extremely hip.


We went to multiple Farmers’ Markets each weekend, ate brunch at Boogaloo’s or Spaghetti Western, or some other equally-funky cafe, spent our evenings going to pottery class (her) or performing improv (me), saw several movies a month, cooked healthy food, hiked in Marin, or rode our bikes to the beach (on a squiggly route that actually avoided all of The City’s hills). We checked our Juno.com email accounts every couple days (preferably at times when we weren’t expecting phone calls, since the dial-up internet tied up the phone) by launching a program that was separate from our Netscape browser, on a computer with 512 MB of memory (that we thought was way more than we’d ever need) that our tech-savvy friend had recently loaded with cool sound clips from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Cities and towns were finally starting to recycle, decent (not excellent, but at least drinkable) coffee was finally becoming available everywhere, and Greg Louganis had recently come out, and it didn’t seem to alter my parents’ appreciation and admiration for his diving accomplishments. Life, both within our relationship and in the Clinton Blow Job world around us, was bulging with hot, squirming, exhilarating potential. The Dream of the 90s was alive and well.

I was making an effort to stay up-to-date with music and musicians, to find new acts I liked and discover records I’d overlooked. I can remember feeling proud that I had purchased several CDs released in 1997 (including Dig Me Out, OK Computer, and When I was Born for the 7th Time) and it wasn’t even 1998 yet.

Then mid 1998 hit, and a baby was due, and that old life gradually, but surely, ended. Somehow, music – which had always been extremely important in my life – became less so. Well, that’s not exactly right. NEW music became less important to me. I continued listening to the music I knew, and started to buy more CDs from the artists I’d always loved, but I wasn’t keeping up to date on the latest records by the newest bands. Suddenly, finding a decent rocking chair (no, wait … a decent GLIDING rocking chair (with gliding ottoman!!)


god forbid my kid be forced to rock like everyone rocked for millennia before him) became more important than finding a decent rocking band.

And for a good 8 or 10 years, I didn’t really know much of what was happening in music. I picked up some music I liked from newer acts, like The White Stripes and The Strokes,
white stripes


but I didn’t become a “fan” of any newer acts, not in the way I’d typically dived into musical acts in the past, the way I did with Yes or Rush or The Beatles or R.E.M. or The Replacements or Elvis Costello. I wasn’t able to invest the time and energy into a band the way I had in my “old life.”


Sometime around 2007, after getting tired of all my whining about not knowing any new artists, my young, hip sister-in-law, Johanna, gave me a bunch of new music to listen to, and among the batch of records was Separation Sunday, by The Hold Steady. I got hooked on it, and have become a fan of the band, almost like back-in-the-day.

There are two things about The Hold Steady that draw me to them: instrumentation and lyrics. And both characteristics are grandly on display on Boys and Girls in America.

The band employs a double guitar attack, with some keyboards thrown in – not loopy, atmospheric, techno keyboards, but recognizable piano and organ sounds. Most of the songs are driving rock, reminiscent of 70s classic rock, but not blues based – they don’t sound like they’re trying to emulate The Allman Brothers, or Grand Funk Railroad. Although the instrumentation is 70s rock, the songs are more pop-punk in structure.

Here’s a video for the first song on the album, “Stuck Between Stations,” which is a great example of what you get with The Hold Steady:

The song has guitars and bass cranked up loud, thumping drums, and nice piano fills, and displays the typical Hold Steady vocal style of cramming lots of words into a small space, and nearly singing, but mostly speaking, in an energetic fashion.

If you watched that, you probably noticed the band’s … well, distinct-looking singer, Craig Finn.

craig finn

Mr. Finn continues the long line of nerdy lead singers that tend to populate many of the bands I really like, like Elvis Costello, XTC’s Andy Partridge, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and Geddy Lee of Rush.
elvis costello

andy partridge


geddy lee

Craig Finn has a voice that probably will divide listeners, some finding it interesting, others dismissing its nasally, speaking-not-singing qualities. I like it, but more than his voice, I love his lyrics. The Hold Steady tend to sing about stupid young people trying to have fun, but oblivious to the fact that maybe their “fun” won’t feel like “fun” the next day. On initial listening, many of their songs seem to be about partying, getting high, being young and indifferent and simply out for a good time. For example, check out “Massive Nights.”

But if you look at the lyrics – and more importantly, listen to how Finn sings them – the good times don’t really sound like they’re all that good. The song describes a drunken, druggy prom date between the singer and a girl, and intersperses the story with reminiscences of all the “massive nights” he and his friends have had (“we had some massive highs/we had some crushing lows/we had some lusty little crushes/we had those all ages hardcore matinee shows”), but ends with an image that – whether a true description of events, or a metaphor for either a sex act or drug use or lost hopes – leaves the listener feeling that maybe those massive nights were massive because they were intended to obscure real problems:

“she had the gun in her mouth/she was shooting up at her dreams/when the chaperone said that we’d been crowned the king and the queen”

But the best part of the song is that it sounds great, and is fun to sing along to! It’s got a bouncy beat, nice harmony background vocals and those 70s guitars. It has a great energy, and even if you’re not some dork who’s into lyrics, there’s a lot to like about the song.

Another track in a lyrically similar vein is “Chillout Tent.”

In this story, which is probably familiar to all fans of live music who were young and dumb once upon a time, two college-age kids, a boy and a girl (the album is named Boys and Girls in America, after all), separately attend an outdoor concert, and after nearly overdosing end up meeting, and finally making out, in the venue’s infirmary, or “Chillout Tent.”

“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kind of sexy but it was kind of creepy.”

The boy and the girl seem indifferent to their near deaths, and instead sing about the “cool girl” and “cute boy” they met, while enthusing that the nurses at the tent “gave us oranges and cigarettes.” The chorus is sung in the first-person, by guest vocalists Elizabeth Elmore (of the band The Reputation) and Dave Pirner (of Soul Asylum), adding to the overall impact of the song, another one in which young people make bad choices but intend to party on, nonetheless.

But wait! Despite the lost dreams, bad decisions and next-morning regrets, the album isn’t a bummer! I over-analyze these things, I know. It’s a rock record, with strong songs, pounding beats, and in-your-face 70s rock guitars. The best part of Boys and Girls in America is that it’s a fun record, and nearly all the songs are sing-along gems – despite saps like me poring over lyrics and putting interpretive turds into this punchbowl of great songs.


Chips Ahoy” is about a horse race, and the singer’s attempts to get romantic with a woman who seems far more interested in horse racing than romance, despite his attempts to get her high.

You Can Make Him Like You” is a straight-ahead rocker that sounds to me like a feminist call to arms, mocking the notion that a woman should leave the “difficult” parts of life – like knowing directions home, or intellectual pursuits – to her man.

First Night” is a piano ballad about missing an ex, featuring characters who appeared in songs from their previous album, Separation Sunday.

hold steady concert poster

There’s a humor to the band (if you watch to the end of the video for “Stuck Between Stations,” you’ll see it), and a desire to have a wild, fun time – even if the wild fun has consequences. I don’t know why songs about youthful bad decisions make such a connection with me. There are many parts of my younger self that I’d like to forget (as I’ve written about before), and even though the lyrics to these songs can make me cringe with self-recognition, I am strangely drawn to them.

The band is frequently compared to Bruce Springsteen. I never really “got” Springsteen, maybe because when I first became really aware of him, his ass was ubiquitous in America, and I decided he was too popular for me to like; or maybe because my first serious girlfriend, M, of New York Cheesecake fame, was a Springsteen nut, and I was too immature to deal with her love for another man. But I know people who love him tend to love his songs for the stories of lost youth, faded glory and ambiguous memories set to a driving beat and hooky melodies. And if that’s the case, then I understand the comparison completely.

The album has a youthful energy, and evokes in me memories of what it was like to be young and free and unencumbered. Maybe that’s why I got so into them after my “old life” was left behind – to help me remember those feelings. And maybe the lyrics’ subtext of the ugly truth behind the memories appeals to me because I know that the “old life” wasn’t really always as wonderful it seems. In fact, I’ve had some “Massive Nights” of a different kind as a dad.


TRACK LISTING (and some lyrics):
Stuck Between Stations (“She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian/She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend”)
Chips Ahoy!
Hot Soft Light (“It started recreational/It ended kinda medical/It came on hot and soft and then/It tightened up its tentacles”)
Same Kooks
First Night
Party Pit
You Can Make Him Like You (“You don’t have to deal with the dealers/Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers/It only gets inconvenient/When you wanna get high alone”)
Massive Nights
Citrus (“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”)
Chillout Tent
Southtown Girls (“Southtown girls won’t blow you away/But you know that they’ll stay”)

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