Few tasks in rock 'n' roll sound as daunting as making the sequel to a beloved debut: The weight of expectations, minus the element of surprise, can be tough to bear. Musicians combat the much-discussed sophomore slump in every way imaginable–cloning the original, overcompensating with bloated epics, writing about the perils of fame–but the smart ones find a way to do what comes naturally, making a record that sounds like a natural progression. Chutes Too Narrow, The Shins' follow-up to 2001's near-perfect Oh, Inverted World, can't match its predecessor's thrill-a-minute menagerie of curveballs and curlicues. But it does share its intelligence and concision, as well as its remarkable ability to make kicky pop-rock sound both simple and complex, retro and modern. A few more breathless knockouts like Oh, Inverted World's "Know Your Onion!" or "Girl On The Wing" would be nice, but "Gone For Good" comes close, taking about 60 seconds to transform from a twangy country-music exercise into a rich, infectious pop blowout. Elsewhere, the tight, whooshing rock of "Fighting In A Sack," "Mine's Not A High Horse," and "So Says I" brushes up against gently shuffling acoustic material like "Young Pilgrims" and "Pink Bullets," all paced perfectly to keep the audience guessing. Without the thrill of discovery, it's no shock that the returns have diminished slightly on Chutes Too Narrow. But a minor step down from greatness still sounds damn good.
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