on 30 May 2009
As the other reviews here have noted, this is very much still a Death Cab For Cutie album; less a Kid A style 'let's throw all the tunes out with the bath water' volte face, than an attempt to meaningfully expand their repetoire while holding on to the elements of their sound that give the band a recognisable identity.
What experimentation there is, the band pull off with panache. That the album takes a cue from the most ambitious end of the American indie rock spectrum is made plain on the first two tracks. Bixby Canyon Bridge recalls Smashing Pumpkins in it's transition from ethereal, languid melody to thunderous guitar lines. I Will Possess Your Heart meanwhile fuses Krautrock with indie in a similar way to Wilco's epic Spiders (Kidsmoke).
After making clear they can hang with such heavy hitters, DCFC remind of their familiar strengths on No Sunlight and Cath, which are power pop perfection. The raw production of the songs is also remiscent of their first two albums.
Other reviews have also mentioned the bleakness of the lyrics, but they are also deeply compassionate; Gibbard never judges his flawed protaganists. The empathy with humanity's most desperate and damaged reminded me of my favourite movie; Todd Solondz's Happiness. The concept of narratives of heartbreak set against a backdrop of unspecified apocalypse also reminded me of Daniel Handler's book Adverbs. (Gibbard and Handler have actually performed together in the past.)
The album is also very much a cohesive body of work, rather than a collection of songs, with some even transitioning into each other, Abbey Road style. The songs that the band judged not to fit the mood of Narrow Stairs were released on the similarly excellent The Open Door EP.
on 17 May 2008
I'm an avid fan of DCFC so narrow stairs was greeted with high anticipation after plans and transatlanticism which are two of my most overplayed albums. This however is nothing like either album and that i think is a good thing! Despite all the press blurb from the band talking of this being 'just the album they wanted to make' i kinda half expected another plans (which would be no bad thing!) but the resulting album strikes me as a cross between plans era death cab and the stylings of their earlier efforts such as the photo album.
The first few songs really set the scene with the usual fabulous lyrics and superb melodies, Bixby Canyon bridge and No Sunlight being wordy but somehow cool and hummable. But the second half of the album takes a turn for the darker and perhaps suggests where dcfc will head with future releases, grapevine fires being particularly dark as BG sings "before we all burn...".
A friend who is also a fan of the band listened to the album expressed his underwhelment as it sounded "nothing like the band he thought he knew", however he returned a few days later saying that he'd changed his mind, got into the abum and now liked it a lot. i think that is the best way to explain it to new listeners and old ones alike, its not the same as plans, it takes some getting used to and rewards repeated listenings.
my personal faves would include Bixby..., Possess your heart and long division.
least faves would be talking bird, its good, just nothing special compared to the tracks running before it!
buy this and give it a try and lets try to get the band on Jools Holland!
on 5 May 2008
Having listened to the entire album, I think I am safe to write a review.
`Narrow Stairs', being the follow-up to the highly acclaimed `Plans' amongst another 5 albums is of the same tremendously high quality of music as the band have managed to produce to date. Fans will be very happy with this album and newcomers will be blown away.
Having read a pre-review that warned of this albums `derailment' from its musical roots and warning that it follows a much darker path, I can happily say that although the album comes across as a much rawer sound, this is not the case.
Production values have been decreased, it is obvious from the outset the difference in style of the music - and can only be described as closer to their live work than previous album releases. Many of the songs time in at 3:30 - 4:00 - with the much longer single "I will possess your heart" ending on 8:35.
In typical DCFC style, the mixture of heartfelt melodies and lyrical genius are not hard to be found. I feel that there is bigger mix of songs on this album than in previous releases. Songs such as `The Ice Is Getting Thinner' and `Talking Bird' are very mellowed out with strong lyrical messages whilst `Your New Twin Sized Bed' and `Bixby Canyon Bridge' would be the sort of upbeat track that would be appreciated on a long sunny drive.
To summarise, Death Cab for Cutie are back in fighting form, proving that they have the same musical diversity as the likes of Radiohead or R.E.M. The pure talent, both instrumentally and lyrically is as clear as the effort and dedication noticeably put into each track.
on 13 May 2008
I suppose it's only right to start this review of "Narrow Stairs" by mentioning all the hype that surrounded the album's supposed departure from Death Cab For Cutie's usual sound and style. The album was said by the band to be "a really polarising record", and something of a "curve ball". Hell, they even mentioned being influenced by heavy metal and synth-punk bands, as well as recording using a live-in-the-studio approach, so you can't blame the fans for expecting something completely different from the Death Cab we all know and love. So, the question now is, does "Narrow Stairs" live up to this promise?
Well actually, it doesn't really. The band does experiment a little more than usual, it's true, like with the hypnotic 8-minute lead single "I Will Possess Your Heart", or the Beach Boys-style production on the short but sweet "You Can Do Better Than Me", or even the India tablas in the sinister rocker "Pity and Fear". And yes, they do rock out harder than they have done in a few years on the aforementioned track, as well as during parts of the superb opener "Bixby Canyon Bridge" and the excellent "Long Division". But looking at the album as a whole, I can't help thinking that they have been exaggerating a little, for it's certainly not the major departure that it could have been.
But it's important to stress that I don't mean that in a bad way. Far from it, in fact. After all, Death Cab For Cutie are an amazing band, and sticking with their signature sound can do them no harm at all. In my opinion, the modest level of experimentation on this record was the perfect amount....enough to give this album it's own distinct identity in the band's impressive back catalogue (and to make it a much livelier affair than their rather ballad-heavy previous album, "Plans"), but not so much as to completely lose their identity (and possibly a lot of fans in the process).
But anyway, the most important thing to know about "Narrow Stairs" is, of course, whether the songs are any good....and, unsurprisingly, they are indeed. There's not really a bad track in sight, in fact, and a few of them may even rank up there with the best of Death Cab's output. Ben Gibbard's lyrics are as brilliantly refined as ever, if a little more straightforward and easy to interpret than on past records. And is it just me, or are Death Cab possibly the greatest in the world when it comes to sequencing an album? They always seem to get the flow just perfect, and this record is no exception.
We kick off with a stand-out track, "Bixby Canyon Bridge", as Gibbard's angelic voice floats over an ethereal backing, singing lyrics that aren't so much inspired by Jack Kerouac as they are about being inspired by Jack Kerouac. After a couple of minutes, the song jumps up a notch, eventually building to a chaotic climax as Gibbard's voice echoes out again into nothingness. "I Will Possess Your Heart" then fades in to begin it's lengthy stay.....possibly too lengthy, I must admit. I admire the band's chutzpah for making an 8 minute song and then releasing it as the lead single, but it doesn't really lend itself to too many repeated listens. The instrumental phrases are lovely, but Gibbard's chorus is a just a little too repetitive (though that does seem appropriate for conveying the insistence of the song's obsessive lyrics, which border on the stalker-ish).
"No Sunlight" provides some welcome relief, with it's brevity and upbeat pop melodies, which contrast with the song's death-of-optimism lyrical theme. This leads into "Cath...", another stand-out track, and one which seems destined to become a Death Cab classic. Featuring heart-wrenching narrative lyrics, a great melody, and some inventive drumming from the always excellent Jason McGerr, this is one you'll almost certainly want to go back to.
"Talking Bird" is a much slower affair, with a sparse production and yet more emotive lyrics from Gibbard. "You Can Do Better With Me" seems almost like a brief interlude, being under 2 minutes in length and featuring a very atypical arrangement that's very reminiscent of "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys. The song seques seamlessly into the brilliant "Grapevine Fires", which features probably Gibbard's best lyrics on the whole album. The song grooves slowly along on an insistent drumbeat and mellow electric piano chords, complete with some choral-style backing vocals.
There's another irresistable groove to be found on "Your New Twin Sized Bed", with plenty of interplay between the guitars and Nick Harmer's inventive bass lines. Gibbard's lyrics are once again unusual but extremely touching, and the melody is lovely and poignant too. The hard rocking "Long Division" follows, featuring sinister verses leading to big sing-along choruses (with some great high harmony vocals from guitarist-producer Chris Walla). This one should be stuck in your head for days.
"Pity and Fear" is up next....and it's not one of the album's best tracks, despite it's unusual tabla intro and crashing outro jam. Closing track "The Ice Is Getting Thinner" is also a little disappointing.....maybe I was too used to hearing the live piano version of this song that Ben Gibbard played live a while ago, but it definitely sounded better that way. On the album version, the piano is switched for a clean electric guitar, which would be fine, except the chords get changed around a bit so that the vocal melody seems to contrast rather awkwardly with the backing (though it comes together better in the middle section). The vocal melody is nice, as are the lyrics, but the final song is a little duller than it should have been.
All in all, there's definitely enough great tracks on "Narrow Stairs" to make it a worthwhile purchase. Even the couple of lesser tracks are still worth listening to, and certainly don't ruin the album as a whole. Long time fans of the band won't be disappointed, and hopefully they'll win a lot of new ones as well. The critics seem to be universally pleased with the album too, so it looks like Death Cab are on to a winner with this one.
As for me, it doesn't beat "Transatlanticism", but then I imagine no album they make ever will. However, it's definitely a contender for the 2nd place position, and that's high praise indeed. I'd say "Narrow Stairs" was as good an album as I could have hoped for from Death Cab For Cutie, and I'd urge everyone to give it a listen.
on 21 July 2008
I love this album, but for me even though I think it contains some of their finest work todate, I can't help but prefer Plans which to me was as near perfect as an album can get!
You can tell that the band are moving in a new, exciting direction with this album, and whilst in the main it works, the intro on I will possess your heart for me is just far too long and repetitive.
However, there are some to soon become classics such as Grapevine Fires and Your New Twin Sized Bed. I think the lyrics are achingly beautiful, and can be related to by anyone who's experienced love and loss.
I would highly recommend this album, but I would also say if you have not heard their Plans album, treat yourself to that too.
on 7 June 2008
Already being a fan of the band Death Cab For Cutie, I can honestly say that I was a little shocked by some aspects of the new album. The 7 minute long epic 'I Will Possess Your Heart' is definitely a new stepping stone in the increasing journey of the band, and one that in my oppinion is a step back. Sure enough it has some nice aspects: the guitar has a nice echo and some sweet effects, and the bass line is porbably one of the hookiest pieces of music the band has written to date - mainly due to the fact that the same bass line is repeated over and over without change through the entire 7 minutes of the song. This does make the song a tad boring, and quite tiresome.
The opening track is what you would expect from Death Cab For Cutie. It follows along the same lines as previous album openers 'Marching Bands Of Manhattan' from Plans and 'The New Year' from Transatlanticism. Each album often contatining an easily accessible, slow building, catchy Indie-Rock masterpiece. This is the case again on this album, however with a slight twist. A Hard-Rock plunge on the guitars for the closing moments of the song comes as a new introduction to a familiar sound on this album, and one that works surpirisingly well with their trademark accessible Indie Pop.
No Sunlight is another stab at their harder work, with a catchy chorus and some beautiful tinkly guitar work. Often reminiscent of early Bloc Party, and Long Division is also of a similar sound. 'Talking Bird' is a slower track with long drawn out vocals that spread the seed of lyrical beauty as Gibbard wails metaphor after metaphor often refering to lonliness and being caged in. 'You Can Do Better Than Me' initially sounds like a christmas jingle, with scintillating bell sounds jingling in the foreground and swooping bass lines. The lyrics are some of Gibbards most honest to date, trully epitamising his lyrical beauty and depth with ingenious poetic lines.
'Grapevine Fires' and 'Your New Twin Sized Bed' may well be some of Death Cab For Cutie's greatest work to date, closely resembled to the work on Transatlanticism. Lonliness and love: often a key ingredient to Gibbard's writing has never been brought across with such poetic beauty before, and the hooky guitar work and fear inspiring vocal courage is brought across to an apocalyptic extent. 'The Ice is Getting Thinner' is a true closing to the album; not letting it continue anywhere else but a conclusion giving the album a trully fulfilling feel.
Although the album portrays some of Death Cab For Cutie's greatest work to date, the other half of the album, however, feels a little incomplete - mainly due to the more experimentalisation used from the band. This is not a bad thing, it gives the band a more broad scale of sound, it just seems like the band may need some more time before they're new sound can be perfected. That is to say, a fantastic album, that could lead to much greater things.
on 3 March 2011
Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs (Warners / Atlantic)
It started to get confusing when "indie" became a sales demographic rather than, at best, a fact of life or, at the very least, a state of mind. Death Cab For Cutie is an indie band signed to the second biggest record label in the world.
There had been much talk prior to the release of Narrow Stairs. Experimentation was the new buzzword and its release was to herald in a new dawn for a band that some felt were getting a little stale. There has been some progress. They're certainly displaying increased chutzpah - lead single "I Will Possess Your Heart" may not stand up to repeated spins, but it's difficult not to admire the audacity of releasing an 8 minute track, of which over half the playing time is an extended intro. The album's opening blast, the clamorous "Bixby Canyon Bridge" is a freewheelin' statement of intent - raw yet focused - and "Long Division" is pure power pop for folks who don't like that sort of thing. Are labels (small "l") still important in music? Definitely less so than they used to be. It doesn't really matter who Death Cab For Cutie are signed to as long as they continue to push themselves and make music that is worthwhile. Narrow Stairs isn't a classic, but it has its moments. That's probably all we can ask from a band with six or seven albums under their belt. 7/10.