Hey man, nice shoes

James Mercer and Co’s retro sounds stay indie, but go commercial.

Even in their late-1960s renaissance, the Beach Boys never performed on “Laugh-In.” Imagine for a moment Brian Wilson and company huddled into the corner of a “Cocktail Party” sketch, surrounded by a gaggle of gyrating, jive-talking and joke-telling swingers. Miss Goldie swoops in with a little mashed-potato and makes gravy with Mike Love. Finally, a post-punchline camera shot cuts to the shaky Wilson, the beads of sweat on his forehead say it all: “What the hell am I doing here?”

It’s unknown whether the pop phenomenon had an opportunity to appear on the comedy hour. Among the celebrity hierarchy, musicians didn’t frequent the soundstage-cum-cosmopolis (Richard Nixon could tell a joke about as well as he could hum a note). Had the Beach Boys chanced to play “Slip On Through” before an audience of millions with a few psychedelic floodlights and a stable of go-go dancers, they might’ve appeared shifty. They might’ve resembled The Shins.

The Shins are an accidental pop phenomenon. For one thing, they literally came out of nowhere (Albuquerque, N.M., now based in Portland, Ore). The group’s 2001 debut, “Oh, Inverted World,” was initially a prized pick among critics and college radio. In the subsequent two years, frontman James Mercer’s inviting whistle from the album’s “New Slang” scored a McDonald’s commercial. Recently, Mercer was profiled in an Entertainment Weekly column praising Saucony sneakers and argyle socks as the self-defining garb for reluctant indie musicians everywhere. Fortunately, the Shins’ stunning pop song craft will always remain more memorable than their image, which makes that reluctance all the more endearing.

“Turn a Square,” off the new “Chutes too Narrow” album sports a buoyant bass line that launches 1,000 pairs of boots toward the dance floor. Filtering a little psych-organ into the mix, The Shins have a just-add-water rave-up. That is, if they want one. Mercer appears much more comfortable in the periphery, shrugging off the line “How I left my home to just whine in this microphone/It gets worse every time that we talk/Can’t afford to be just one in a flock.”

The title alone, “Chutes too Narrow” suggests a “square peg” mentality. Mercer and crew will never be just part of the pop flock, though nowadays they can afford a few more pairs of Saucony sneakers. The Shins also have the chutzpah to do unlike other pop bands, especially those earning such accolades. With “Chutes too Narrow,” they play risk. While a canon of influences still resonate (Kinks, Zombies, the aforementioned Beach Boys), The Shins now dabble with a slide guitar straight from a Byrds “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” session (“Pink Bullets,” “Gone for Good”). They even twirl in the same Cyrkle as early-80s L.A. jangle-poppers The Rain Parade (“Mine’s Not a High Horse”).

Despite its impenetrable catchiness, one drawback to “Oh, Inverted World” is Mercer’s witty, absurdist wordplay wading in the bottom end of the mix. This time around, he is noticeably upfront. “Saint Simon” finds Mercer not only articulating, but (deep-breath) cramming a full couplet into one shallow breath: “After all these implements and texts designed by intellects so vexed to find evidently there’s so much that hides.” Fortunately, there’s still ample room in narrow chutes for playful “da-das,” “la-las” and other onomatopoeic ephemera – such nonsense syllables make a Quran of our pop lexicon. Mercer closes “Chutes too Narrow” with the whistle that made him famous. This time, he’s quiet and confident while walking away – his argyles pulled up high.