Review: Death Cab For Cutie’s “Narrow Stairs”

May 20, 2008 4:00pm

On the much loved but sadly canceled show, “The O.C.,” Seth Cohen, one of the main characters, had such glowing love for Death Cab For Cutie that at times they were almost like a character on the show.  This, no doubt, along with hard work, helped the band secure a major label deal in 2005, moving to Atlantic records.  “Narrow Stairs” is their second major label album, following up their very successful album “Plans.”  “Narrow Stairs” is also an improvement on their formula.  Considering that it’s their sixth album, it’s about time this perpetual “band on the brink” gets some glory.  Lead singer, Ben Gibbard is likeable, although his lyrics do tend to get a little too self-aware.  It took me two years to learn to like his extremely popular side-project the Postal Service because of his lyrical tendencies.  (In the song “Nothing Better” for instance, he sang, “Will someone please call a surgeon, to crack my ribs and fix this broken heart?” It’s a little awkward and on -the-nose. There’s something almost nauseating and patronizing about his delivery of those lines.) There were times on “Plans” when his sense of detail worked in his favor.  “Crooked Teeth,” for instance was a brilliant single.  “Soul Meets Body” also worked well. On “Narrow Stairs,” either I’ve gotten more used to his quirks or he’s toned down a little bit.  They are no longer as big of a distraction, thankfully. Guitarist, Chris Walla has made his name as an indie-rock producer as well, working with everyone from Nada Surf to the Stratford 4.  He also released a solo album earlier this year. On “Narrow Stairs” he also serves as producer.  The album opens with “Bixby Canyon Bridge.”  The song begins with an ambient sonic wash and Gibbard’s voice setting up an intro.  Rather quickly the song emerges and blossoms.  The verses are given weight by subtle drumming and some guitar, before it all begins to rock out and become immense.  Gibbard’s voice is given nice distortion as his sings over hard-charging, heavy riffing.  Eventually, after jamming for a while, the song ends in a nice, unexpected mess of feedback. The feedback encases Gibbard’s voice which repeats a part of his intro amid the distortion.  Within 5 minutes the track takes us from a very quiet place, growing and becoming louder and more pronounced.  That’s the way to open an album! Next is the 8-minute single, “I Will Possess Your Heart.”  Like the title-track to the band’s 2003 high-water-mark, “Transatlanticism,” it’s a slow-building epic that should stick with you for some time.  At the same time, the length, the instrumental touches and the overall sense of repetition recall the jam bands of the seventies like Traffic.  Maybe this is this generation’s “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.” On second thought, maybe not.  Nevertheless, the track is a winner whether in its long form here, or its massively cut radio edit.  “No Sunlight” is next, a quick and stellar power-pop number.  Sonically, it couldn’t be more different than “I Will Possess Your Heart,” but it would make a perfect second single.  It has a similar infectiousness as “Crooked Teeth.” “Cath…” is next.  It is also a winner and a possible single.  It’s a little like an emo  ballad but it also plays on all of Death Cab’s strengths.  Lyrically, here, Gibbard is serving as a great storyteller, telling the story of his doomed, bridal-dress-wearing protagonist. He captures her uneasiness while his band-mates, Walla, Nicholas Harmer and Jason McGerr create a stirring backdrop.  Throughout “Narrow Stairs,” the band is at peak level.  They are tighter and better than ever.  This is just one of the many examples throughout the disc.  “Talking Bird” begins as a slightly bluesy ballad about (you guessed it) a bird.  The bass gives it weight and fills empty space excellently until some defining guitar distortion gives the track real texture.  “You Can Do Better Than Me” is just under two minutes and is driven by a walking piano, some punctuating organ bits, and a marching band style beat.  Despite its brevity, it sticks to the surface well.  “Grapevine Fires” is another possible single, with Death Cab showing their softer side.  Once again, Gibbard’s sense of lyrical detail works in his favor.  The subject matter is a downer, but Death Cab have never been known to be a cheery band.  It’s a great song about a fire. How many of those are there?  “Your New Twin Sized Bed” may very well be the best song on the disc.  It’s a song about abandoning a queen-sized bed and embracing loneliness.  The song works because it delivers the whole package.  The melody is appealing, the lyrics are sharp and the production is crisp and innovative.  No doubt there will be people who relate to the song’s somber sentiment as well. “Long Division” is also almost as striking. It’s another strong slice of power-pop. (Hey, maybe those math skills do come in handy in every day life! They make good lyrical references, anyway!) When all their rockets are firing, Death Cab for Cutie can be a force to be reckoned with. Tablas usher in the stirring “Pity and Fear.” The song has a creepy, ominous quality, while keeping a fast pace.  Once again, Walla’s production is at a dynamite level. The song ends very abruptly, and the soft, wintery closer “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” begins.  It ends a solid album with no weak spots.  The fact that this album is so good is a little bit of a shock.  Death Cab have always been reliable, but here they are at the top of their game.  Like Jimmy Eat World’s 2001 album, “Bleed American,” “Narrow Stairs” should serve as a significant game-changer, introducing Death Cab For Cutie to a much wider audience.  It surpassed my expectations and is a welcome surprise. Maybe Seth Cohen was onto something.  No doubt, he’d be pleased.

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