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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie: "Narrow Stairs"

When Death Cab for Cutie signed to Atlantic Records a few years back, many people expected the worse. In the indie music world, where signing to a major record label is often met with cries of “selling out” and steadfast declarations of “their old stuff was better,” Death Cab’s transition was proof that a major record deal doesn’t alway signal the end of a band’s better days. Plans wound up being a beautiful album; not near as exciting or breathtaking as its predecessor, but still drenched in Ben Gibbard’s unparalleled lyricism and Chris Walla’s flawless production. It was an album that found the band’s rough edges smoothed out - their more hopeful moments set aside to make way for those of self-doubt and longing.

Narrow Stairs takes the opposite approach. Walla is once again behind the production, but the album has a much more natural quality to it (a feature that not only contrasts Plans, but Walla’s own solo album and his work with The Decemberists and Tegan and Sara). As such, it feels more like the band’s earlier work: unrestrained and unrefined, free of nit-picking and studio perfectionism. The raw, guitar distortion of album-opener, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” would never exist on an album like Plans, and it’s refreshing to hear the band breaking free from the self-imposed restrictions of their previous record.

Likewise, the album’s first single “I Will Possess Your Heart” is well over 8 minutes long, something that I can’t imagine Atlantic Records smiling on, especially being a single. The song seems hand-crafted to be the opening number to a live performance, with instrumentation slowly building over Nick Harmer’s infecting bass line until finally, after 4 1/2 minutes, it’s just Gibbard spouting his equally intoxicating, “You gotta spend some time love/ you gotta spend some time with me.” Like most, I wasn’t sold on the song on the first listen, but after spending some time with it (get it?) it grew on me. It still may not have been the wisest choice for a first single, but doing so seems to be more about making a statement than a marketing decision.

“No Sunlight” is, oddly enough, a very sunny pop/rock song with an indisputably rockin’ chorus. Like a good Of Montreal song, its easy-going composition masks its darker lyrics. During the chorus, Gibbard sings, “It disappeared at the same speed/ the idealistic things I believe/ the optimist died inside of me.” “Cath...” is equally as depressing, telling the story of a woman who always falls in love with the wrong man. Ben’s lyrics are as impressive as they always are, lamenting, “Cath/ it seems that you live in someone else’s dream/ in a hand-me-down wedding dress,” later noting that, “the whispers that it won’t last/ run up and down the pews.” The song’s forward guitars and bouncy instrumentation make it an easy favorite on the album, and one that I simply can’t find fault with.

“Talking Bird” is a strange ballad about a parrot, or other bird that can talk. Gibbard trudges through the song with his typically melancholic musings, but knowing the subject matter really makes the song lose any effect that it may have had otherwise. “You Can Do Better Than Be” bursts out of the gate with such fanfare, that it seems more appropriate for a parade than a Death Cab album. Ben begins the song by singing, “I’m starting to feel we stayed together out of fear,” over heavily-structured, syncopated snares and bass drums. It’s a very cool sounding song and one of the few times on Narrow Stairs in which the band feels like they’re trying to branch out.

By far, the album’s standout track is “Grapevine Fires,” in which Gibbard tells the story of a peaceful moment in the midst of a wildfire. The song is absolutely gorgeous from the start, with soft instrumentation, lush harmonies, and vivid imagery carrying it to its stunning conclusion (“The firemen worked in double shifts/ with prayers for rain on their lips”). “Your New Twin Sized Bed” is more standard Death Cab fare. As such, one could probably figure out the story of the song based on the title alone. It’s a pretty track, but nothing that requires any real discussion or dissection. “Long Division” winds up being a much more pleasing song. With an irresistible, upbeat, guitar-heavy arrangement, you’re almost guaranteed to sing along to the chorus (“To be the remain, remain, remain, remainder!”) and maybe even bust out with a little air drumming. I know I have.

“Pity and Fear” is a song that never really goes anywhere. It doesn’t build, change, or affect in any notable manner, and may be doomed to skip button of many CD players. Unfortunately, not even some admittedly cool guitaring in the track’s final minute can redeem it. “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” ends the album on a high, if not sorrowful, note. Gibbard describes two lovers drifting apart with such beauty, that it’s difficult to even think of a song that could do it better. He croons, “We buried our love/ in a wintery grave/ a lump in the snow/ was all that remained.” It is a typical, soft, reflective comedown track to be sure, but you simply can’t deny the brilliance of it.

In many ways, Narrow Stairs is a return to form for Death Cab for Cutie. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily show them retreading the same path again, either. What Narrow Stairs accomplishes is much more subtle and graceful. It portrays a band embracing their roots while moving towards the future. With their success and notoriety already achieved, the band challenged themselves to make an album that doesn’t rely on perfection in the studio, songwriting, or performances; but one that is honest, exciting and natural. It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, but Narrow Stairs is far from a sell out or a disappointment. It is simply another solid album from a band who continues to prove themselves worthy of our admiration. And really, what more could anyone want?

Key Tracks:
1. “Bixby Canyon Bridge”
2. “ I WIll Possess Your Heart”
3. “Cath...”
4. “You Can Do Better Than Me”
5. “Grapevine Fires”

8 out of 10 Stars

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