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Chutes Too Narrow—9

 

Released: 2003

1)  Kissing The Lipless  2) Mine's A High Horse  3) So Says I  4) Young Pilgrims  5) Saint Simon  6) Fighting In A Sack  7) Pink Bullets  8) Turn A Square  9) Gone For Good  10) Those To Come 

 

There is no sophomore slump here as “Chutes Too Narrow” clearly proves that James Mercer is an excellent songwriter and talented singer.  The Hawaiian born son from a military family really came into his own on this record, departing from his style shown on “Oh, Inverted World” and developing a more well rounded, melodic line of attack.  While this album doesn’t flow nearly as well as the band’s debut, the individual songs on “Chutes Too Narrow” are of a higher quality.  Not all of them mind you, there are still some flashes of filler, but Mercer takes a large step in lessening the blow of these “average” tunes with his enormous growth as a lyricist and as a vocalist.  Each song has at least a few intriguing lines and the album takes on a greater weight because of them, while Mercer voice just sounds fuller and more emotional.  The whole band sounds better actually, perhaps because of the line up change (Dave Hernandez rejoined the band for this album--apparently, it really is difficult to find musicians in New Mexico). 

 

The record opens with “Kissing the Lipless,” which spends its three minutes of Indie bliss going back and forth between gentle lullaby and power pop, with Mercer’s voice leading the charge.  He manages to loll you in with saccharine at times, but then frantically sends you on your way at others.  New (old) bassist Dave Hernandez shines with his high bass pouring out those “Paperback Writer” blasts, and the rest of the band follows suit.  Mine’s Not A High Horse” is a fast paced, pulsating track.  Well…pulsating in a geeky, Weezer, Flaming Lips, nerdy way…regardless, the tune is excellent with a brilliant keyboard hook on the chorus, and more aggressive sound. 

 

Aggressive doesn't even begin to explain the next track.  “So Says I” just rulz; hard-edged pop-rock with a killer guitar fill.  Somehow though, during the middle eight, the band throws in a little happy, beach melody that shouldn’t work, but slows done the track just long enough to make the ending rock that much better.  This is just a well-structured, catchy, fun, perfect song, and Mercer sings it better than any track they have yet recorded.  Young Pilgrims” follows and is a mellow, acoustic stroll with an attractive melody and inviting instrumentation.  It is a seemingly simple, but completely catchy song, and Mercer’s newfound lyrical twists help push it along and keep you interested throughout.  The most beautiful track on the album, and the band’s best song to date, “Saint Simon,” is most reminiscent of the sound heard on “Oh, Inverted World,” but it makes even the best tracks there pale in comparison.  The tune is melodic, unusual, charming and when Mercer sings his “La-la-las” with the violin background, it is stunning. 

 

Fighting In a Sack” comes out of nowhere and ruins the high of “Saint Simon.”  It is an old school, 50s inspired rocking song that is a lot of fun, with a great harmonica solo and goodtime feel, but just sits so out of place on the record.  It isn’t a bad song by any means, but it shouldn’t be located at this spot on the album.  Pink Bullets” is a very good song, similar to “Young Pilgrims” being a bouncy, bleak, mid-tempo, twangy acoustic confessional.  Again, Mercer’s lyrics shine, along with his desperate harmonica fills.  The forgettable, “Turn A Square” is another out of place romp.  It isn’t just sequenced wrong though…this song is just bad and shouldn’t have made the cut at all.  It is easily the least focused, and just flat out worst song of their short career. 

 

A country song in tone and lyrics, “Gone For Good,” follows and features guest steel pedalist Kevin Suggs.  This song took a while to click with me, but it as catchy and heartfelt as anything on the album.  The chorus is impossible not to sing along with and it has that agreeable Jayhawks, country-pop sound, that when it works (like on this track) is just pure charming.  Those To Come” closes out the album in sheer splendor.  Mercer’s delicate guitar and restrained vocals gently melt into the melody, combining to form the band’s most tearjerking number.  Everything about this song is gorgeous, and it reminds me of a little more hopeful sounding “Street Spirit” by Radiohead.

 

Chutes Too Narrow” ups the stakes.  It doesn’t have the cohesiveness of the debut, but it betters that effort in every other manner (including the pop-up cover).  Now the pressure is really on.  James Mercer has proven that he not only can write innovative melodies in a variety of styles, but he has shown that he has the lyrical bite to develop into a real find.  This is sink or swim time…and I cannot wait to hear the band’s next offering.  Are they going to take the Radiohead route or become the next Violent Femmes?

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