In indie terms, The Shins' debut album, Oh, Inverted World, was a success. Recorded on Sub Pop in 2001, it earned the respect of critics and introduced legions of indie-rock fans to a retro sound unlike current retro-rockers The Strokes and The White Stripes.
Buckets of reverb were dumped over the colors of each instrument, blending them to create a sound that drew references to classic acid rock, the likes of which have not been seen in a long while.
As it turns out, the psychedelic sound was not produced as a tribute to bands like Love but as a product of recording the album in frontman James Mercer's basement -- without the best equipment.
"I definitely was not happy with the sound quality of the first record," Mercer says.
The sound lacks "definition," he adds, due to poor mike quality, a shabby sound card and lack of any pre-amp.
"Reverb on everything -- that's partly because the mikes were so bad. You can make things sound good with reverb," he says.
So, on their second album, Chutes Too Narrow, the group toned down the reverb, and each instrument shines with clarity. The sound is still stratospheric euphoria, but it's a crisp euphoria with the occasional electric guitar slice through the wispy cloud of keyboards and harmonic vocals.
Mercer is pleased with Chutes' sound quality, although it was also recorded in his basement, this time in Portland, where the band has relocated from Albuquerque.
Using advance money from the record label to purchase equipment, as opposed to spending it on studio time, was a good monetary, as well as personal and creative, investment.
"You learn a skill in that you learn how to record, and I think you understand more about songwriting through recording," he says. "There's just so many reasons why everybody should do this. And it's so cheap now."
Two years elapsed between The Shins' debut and sophomore albums, a long time in an industry with a short attention span.
"It took three months, really. I don't work on music when I don't have to," Mercer says. "But I'm always writing stuff, because I enjoy that, but as far as sitting down and working on a record, I only do that when it's time to do that."
The development of The Shins' unique sound was not a conscious, cerebral process, but a more natural one, Mercer says.
"I think that us being older, we're more comfortable being ourselves. When I was in Flake, the band we had going earlier, I didn't trust myself to judge something as cool or not, or good or not, or worthy or not. You end up ripping things off and sounding like other bands," he says.
Mercer pens lyrics that are on the verge of saying something but remain elusive, implying rather than outright saying, suggesting rather than showing. He adds lyrics after the melody and music have been written in a process that is part stream of consciousness, part deliberate insertion of message.
"The stream of consciousness gets the process started, but I tend to want things to be coherent, and so I'll try and apply logic to the lyrics," he says. "Sometimes it's just a feeling that I'm trying to put across through imagery and sometimes I'm trying to tell you something more narratively."
On "So Says I," Mercer examines the concept of a utopia, even referencing the man who coined the term: "Cuz this is nothing like we'd ever dreamt/ Tell Sir Thomas More we've got another failed attempt."
"It's interesting to me that we have this ongoing process of trying to figure out the best way to govern ourselves," he says. "It's a beautiful thing, really."
Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 Clarkson St.,
Tuesday, May 10, 7:30 p.m.,
Tickets: $18.50, check www.ticketmaster.com or call 303/830-TIXS
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