Monday, May 12, 2008

Record Review: Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs

The popular indie pop band follows up their 2005 hit-or-miss affair Plans with a darker, more adventurous, more consistent record, one that occassionally falls short but always sounds more interesting than Death Cab normally does.

Rating: 3.5/5

I am not afraid to admit it: I was, in fact, fully and completely duped by the April Fools fake leak of Narrow Stairs. Eventually I looked up the lyrics to discover that, yeah, I had downloaded the Velveteen album. I was mildly annoyed at first, but then got over it, and ultimately the fake leak provided a valuable service. The Velveteen record is quite shitty, in my opinion, and really forced me to open my eyes and concede that Death Can for Cutie aren’t as run-of-the-mill as I sometimes make them out to be. Velveteen is mediocre; DCDC is an occasionally boring but often enjoyable indie pop band. I bitch quite a bit that Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard should spend his time with Dntel working on a sophomore Postal Service record, but I tried to approach Narrow Stairs with an open mind and offer a fair and balanced view.

And ya know what? Narrow Stairs isn't bad. It's a somewhat adventurous, often compelling, very focused work that doesn’t always nail the target, but always knows what it's trying to hit. Overall, the record, as you might have guessed from the band’s comments, is a considerably darker batch of songs than we’re used to from Death Cab and, even if it isn’t as musically experimental as it was hyped up to be, frequently finds the band pushing their own limits through fuzzy guitars, prog-tinged instrumental stretches, and shadowy, despair-drenched lyrical terrain. Which is to say, this is the sound of unsettling.

When the more dangerous sound works, it works quite well. On opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” Gibbard’s gentle vocals float nicely above quivering guitars, then gradually fade back into the mix as the track smoothly and decisively transitions from a clean, quiet ballad to a feedback-driven jam. The evolution of the next song, the epic lead single “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is even more impressive: four-and-a-half moody, ominous instrumental minutes over which the band seamlessly, constantly gains momentum, perfectly setting up Gibbard’s menacing, almost psychotic performance on the song’s back half. Both “No Sunlight” and “You Can Do Better Than Me” nicely juxtapose sunny, upbeat backdrops with sad, hopeless lyrics. The heart-breaking “Cath…” is perhaps best of all, the tale of a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, a tale told superbly by Gibbard.

And really, Gibbard owns this album. Yeah, his pop hooks and emo-ish tenor have been the stars of every Death Cab album, but on Narrow Stairs’ highlights, Gibbard steps his game to a new level, poetically contemplating decaying idealism, broken dreams, forest fires, and other sources of loss, fear, and uncertainty. Nothing here matches previous DCFC standouts like “Pictures in an Exhibition,” “Tiny Vessels,” or “Soul Meets Body,” but Stairs features more good songs than any Death Cab record has in quite some time, largely due to Gibbard’s stirring words.

Still, the album also offers several songs that are merely okay, not bad by any means but relatively pedestrian nonetheless. “Your New Twin-Sized Bed” is a mildly catchy but unspectacular typical Death Cab joint, while “Long Division” stands as the album’s one true lyrical misstep, a tale of a troubled relationship that Gibbard cringe-inducingly represents through the metaphor of long division (“And they carried on/Like long division”). The exotic drumming that begins “Pity and Fear” is an interesting sonic touch, but neither the refrain nor the distortion-fueled back stretch really demand repeated listens. “Talking Bird” is well-written and solidly executed, but sounds flat and purposeless when sandwiched between two superior cuts.

That being said, the gap between the crests and troughs of Narrow Stairs really isn’t that large. The weakest moments are listenable, the highlights aren’t mind-blowing, and overall, Death Cab’s latest LP is a consistent, slightly challenging slice of indie pop. I’m still waiting for Give Up II, but that doesn’t overshadow the fact that Death Cab for Cutie have made a decent album, one that commendably takes the band a little bit out of their comfort zone.

Death Cab for Cutie - I Will Possess Your Heart

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