Don’t do diet. Drinks, that is. We all hate calories, believe me. They sneak up at the absolutely worst times. Even after that third Tab, when the world seems silky sweet, you have to come to terms with the fact that if you keep this up, you’ll be temporarily burdened with kidneys like the Pope’s. I don’t have a gall bladder for inconsequential reasons, but I must tell you kidney stones are a bitch. We want the danger of candid excess. We need danger and pain (though not of the stinging visceral kind). The new Shins album, “Chutes Too Narrow,” offers no anguish of the therapeutic variety, but plenty of the progressive, physically poisonous variety. Maybe the title refers not to some intangible emotional contracture, but to a very excruciating urethral ailment that speaks to the disagreeable flight of those nasty mineral deposits that arise from either of two kidneys.
After listening to the album all the way through, I wasn’t offended, so I thought I’d give it another shot. And then another. And then yet another. After the fourth listen my brain warned me that this might not be the innocuous Kinks-y psychedelia I’d assumed it was. No, my friends — heed this warning, because this album is quite the slippery slope. You may think it avoids all the pitfalls of bad mainstream rock because it does not pry open your parched ears and shove in all sorts of ridiculous propaganda, but that does not mean it can’t hurt you. Mind the stones, my dear boy, mind the stones.
Everything, from the chugging acoustic guitar to the interplanetary keyboard effects, eases the poor mind into a state of false euphoria, but beware — it’s all a trap. Much like the Wizard of Oz’s techniques, the cute little idiosyncrasies of this album hide most of the vapid, deceptive, shallow emotion of the music. The quirks that make the ambiance seem delightful have been assembled through smoke machines, strobe lights, and trick shots. In essence, “Chutes” is an auditory bad student film (is that a double negative?).
Another pitfall that cannot be overlooked is frontman James Mercer’s melodic insensibility. His meandering tunes tug at your earlobes for attention, but eventually the songs just throb like a pair of mercilessly stubborn clip-on earrings (I’ve heard). The impressive elasticity of his voice encourages him to stretch each cadence much farther than it should ever go. It worked for Liz Phair because she had a limited range that endeared her to us as she struggled to defy its capacity. Mercer, on the other hand, does have the reach, and, by swooping and climbing incessantly, pisses us off to no end. Pick a damn octave and stick with it.
The only one who could truly pull off this technique with flair and grace is Joni Mitchell. Her incisive lyrics could not possibly settle for anything less than her distinctive vocal style. This is Mercer’s problem. He has nothing to convey, and when it seems he does, he seems to be noodling around with nonsense like “after all these implements and texts/designed by intellects/we’re vexed.” He never shows us the blood on his tracks.
“Gone For Good” is the only song on this album that I can play more than twice without massaging my abdominal flanks. This country pop ditty in the style of Wilco finally cuts the crap and speaks from the heart — for a bit. Then comes “I find a fatal flaw in the logic of love.” Blah blah blah — Mercer sounds like that kid in class whom you just want to pistol whip who begins all of his terrible insights with “I believe this is a commentary on –“
— that was the precise moment when I pressed stop for the final time and grabbed a Coke and a double cheeseburger.