Oh, Inverted World, the sly, tender 2001 debut by Albuquerque's The Shins, fairly upended my historically indie-rocking world. Blame it on a stint at college radio, or two-sedan basement tours through the heartland, or too many damn Guided by Voices records, but shaggy-guys-with-guitars had all but ossified into hollow shtick when World rumbled through the town between my ears. Somehow, the record sounded fresh, unique even: front man James Mercer's adenoidal whimper, reeling off weird depictions of surreal sex; keyboardist Marty Crandall's translucent haunted-house synth lines; drummer Jesse Sandoval's casual thrift-store swing. And melodies, melodies, melodies -- full-throated choruses, serpentine bridges, tiny blown-glass microhooks etched anywhere they'd fit.
On Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins' follow-up, Mercer and his bandmates wisely extend their own glorious routine, proffering more of what made World go 'round. And still it sounds fresh, even when Mercer recycles his melodies, as he does on "Gone for Good," a bouncy acoustic ballad sure to be the sweetheart of any hipster-enclave rodeo. (Like Destroyer mastermind Dan Bejar, with whom he should definitely form a side project, Mercer favors tricky minor-to-major vocal lines that habitually reference themselves -- and old Zombies songs.) I suppose you could attribute that continued novelty to the modest sophomore-album sonics the band prefers: wide-screen guitar roar in opener "Kissing the Lipless," a music-hall bass line in "Saint Simon," mod-soul swagger in "Turn a Square." But since The Shins recorded Chutes in Mercer's new Portland basement and haven't made a grab at drive-time lucidity -- "I was just bony hands as cold as a winter pole," Mercer sings in "Pink Bullets," which has to have been the name of a Pavement song -- I'm not betting on it. It more likely has something to do with the rare chemistry of the right shaggy guys with the right guitars; if history disagrees, I can't explain it any more than I can stop listening.