Second albums can be strange animals. They merit special attention when following up a first effort that establishes the artist as a talent to be reckoned with, as the Shins' Sub Pop debut "Oh, Invert

Second albums can be strange animals. They merit special attention when following up a first effort that establishes the artist as a talent to be reckoned with, as the Shins' Sub Pop debut "Oh, Inverted World" did in 2001. The set garnered wide critical acclaim and afforded the group the modest "indie community" celebrity previously enjoyed by the likes of Built To Spill, Modest Mouse and Guided By Voices.

The Shins are praised for forging their own "sound," a distinction that is lost on a number of today's most commercially successful bands. Though the band's influences course freely through the veins of its music, one could hear a small snippet and not have a tough time recognizing the song as the Shins' work, not that of the Zombies, the Kinks or the Beach Boys.

Singer/songwriter James Mercer's voice, which paints evocative mental pictures with his unique lyrics, is a crucial factor in the Shins' sound, but the group's trademark also includes the singular way the other instruments tend to dance around and decorate his vocals.

So with the band's second Sub Pop set, "Chutes Too Narrow" (released Oct. 21), the quartet -- Mercer, keyboardist Marty Crandall, drummer Jesse Sandoval and new bassist Dave Hernandez -- turned out 10 strong songs that aim to retroactively justify a lot of the accolades heaped upon the group. Those who flocked to the band's debut with open arms will bring their expectations to bear on the new album, and its public appeal could in theory, "make or break" the band.

But in real life, this sort of thing would never cross Mercer's mind. He just sits down and writes his songs, and tries to convey beauty and truth and tiny revelations about life through his chosen art.

"I don't know how much my surroundings affect my writing," he muses. "I lived in Alberquerque when I wrote the first record and I lived in Portland [Ore.] when I wrote the second. But I think the process is so internal that I don't think the environment has much of an effect."

"I try to concentrate on what I'm expressing with the sound of the melody and what sort of emotion does it evoke," he explains of his writing style. "Usually it brings up something that's going on in my life or some sort of thought process I've been going through."

"Chutes Too Narrow" would seem to insinuate, then, that Mercer has been thinking a lot about how boys and girls sometimes don't play nice with each other. A number of the album's tracks deal with relationships in various states of dissolution, from relatively raucous opener "Kissing the Lipless," whose chorus admits that "secretly, I want to bury in the yard / the grey remains of a friendship scarred," to the gentle, country-inspired penultimate track "Gone for Good," in which the narrator "found a fatal flaw in the logic of love" and walks out on his girl to "get on with my lonely life."

One of Mercer's strongest talents is his ability to inject his songs with vivid, sometimes arresting imagery. The desolate "Pink Bullets" compares two people's relationship to a pair of kites above a field: "When the kite lines first crossed / you tied them into knots / to finally fly above / we had to cut them off." As the song draws to a close, so does the couple's source of happiness: "the years have seemed short, but the days went slowly by / two loose kites falling from the sky / drawn to the ground and an end to flight."

Then again, not everything on "Chutes Too Narrow" contemplates misery. The harmonica-infused "Fighting in a Sack" is a rollicking pop song, and the feverish "Turn a Square" rocks as hard as anything the band has ever done. The intricately structured "Saint Simon" uses its lilting melody to ponder the contrast between humanity's scientific understanding of mortality and its yearning for spiritual fulfillment.

The Shins initially came into existence as a side project of Flake Music, featuring Mercer and Sandoval (Crandall and former Shins bassist Neal Langford were also in Flake). "A year later Flake broke up," Mercer explains, "and about that time, the Shins started to take off." Crandall and Langford jumped aboard around the time that a friend invited Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman to a show, and the group soon had a record deal.

As the Shins, the band now has only released 23 studio recordings -- including B-sides -- in four years. That's been enough to cement the group's status as "a band to watch," but Mercer is not content to rest on "Chutes Too Narrow": he is already contemplating the future with an eye toward increasing his artistic output.

"During the past two years I've just been moving around -- we toured so much," he says, "but I've got a place now that will be my permanent residence, and what I want to do is just be constantly recording, always working on something."

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