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 2 July 2008
I must say when I played this the first 5 times I was a bit disappointed with it compared to Plans and Translanticism....it wasn't as immediate.....but now the melodies have got into my soul......and I am now counting the days (12 !) till I see them live for the first time.....
Its a bit edgier than the previous two.....but thats a good thing.....
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 14 June 2008
I'll begin by saying that I am completely new to this band. There are some reviews here from long-term fans and I just wanted to add the perspective of someone hearing the album without any previous experience.
In short, I think the album is outstandingly good. It puts me in mind of other great song-driven bands such as Tears for Fears or World Party or the less well-known Nada Surf. I think the band have created a very interesting mix of get-up-and-dance jangly pop/rock songs and some more thoughtful/experimental stuff with indie-leanings as well. There is nothing that will necessarily shock or surprise you here - this is mainstream stuff and the Beach-Boys inspired "You Can Do Better Than Me" or the appearance of the Tabla (bring out the Tablas!) later in the album really make that point, but the album is a very good blend of optimism and melancholy that American guitar bands seem to do so well. There are some subtle gems here though... unlike some other reviewers I think the 8-minute "I will possess your heart" is a work of genius and is reminiscent of the soundscapes of the Doves or of indie-bands like New Order. If you listen to it in those terms then it works really well.
If you prefer your music to be relatively mainstream, but enjoy occasional reminders of deeper things, then I think this album would make an essential addition to your collection. There are subtle overtones of so many great things here that, for me at least, the album is easy to listen to and an exciting joy at the same time. I'm so glad I came across this band!
on 12 September 2016
Sadly my disc arrived with a scratch in it and the second half does not play from track 5 onwards.
Got my money back and reordered elsewhere.
Some great tracks, there are great high points but the ones inbetween let this disc down. Grapevine fires is a standout song and I will Possess your heart as well however I think the long intro works better on the Video clip.
The song You can do better than me really is the classic that a lot of restless guys (and Girls) can relate to. It is a bit bleak if you want an upbeat song try No Children by The Mountain Goats, but hey Upbeats songs are not in the Realm of DCFC. Good band Good album.
on 13 June 2008
After crossing over from the indie ghetto into the US mainstream with last album `Plans' (platinum Stateside but largely unnoticed over here) Atlantic will be looking to `Narrow Stairs' to break DCfC in the UK. Despite that success, DCfC haven't sat back on their laurels and then put out `Plans II'. `Narrow Stairs' uses a broader musical palate than their earlier work and reflects the growing experience and ambition of lead guitarist and producer Chris Walla. These are songs that have a strong skeleton onto which the layers of instrumentation are built: Gibbard has said that he `made a conscious decision to sit down with the guitar and make sure they could all be played on an acoustic'. And in comparison with `Plans' there's a more spontaneous feel. `Narrow Stairs' still occupies the broad firmament of American indie, literate, melancholy, introspective, but this time out, there's an experimental edge to the music. Radiohead meets The National? Wilco meet Coldplay?
Lyrically however the songs here are almost unremittingly despairing, chronicling the loss of innocence and an increasing sense of pointlessness; the loss of idealism followed by despairing compromise. If there are relationships at all, they whither and die, but dreams of love have largely been replaced by attempts to ward off loneliness. As an insight into Gibbard's current state of mind, Narrow Stairs' paints a frightening picture, only confirmed by his subsequent musings. Fortunately the musical backdrop shows a lighter touch, or wrists would be slit before the final track fades.
Talking about Bixby Bridge Gibbard referred to `the romance of the road, particularly from Kerouac's work, encapsulated how I wanted to live'. He has also talked about the consequences of choosing to live in that way, for Kerouac and ultimately for himself: `...you end up with a series of failed relationships and you end up being an alcoholic...and not having any kind of real grip on the lives of the people around you. I run the risk of losing touch with the people in my life that mean the most to me because I have made the decision to live like this.' `Why did I think I was going to come here and have this place change my life?' he mused `I wanted it so badly. I wanted to cleanse myself with this place...' Expressing his sense of failure and confusion, he says: `The epiphany never came. I'm just as confused now as when I got here six months ago...I'd totally idealised what I'd be able to accomplish down here. At some point I thought that, as I got older, I'd come to terms with a lot of things. I'd solve some big problems, and eventually I'd become content. But I don't think that'll ever happen'. This internal turmoil and sense of desperation permeates the whole album from opening track "Bixby Canyon Bridge", where Gibbard's distinctive high tenor over muscular riffing narrates a trip in the footsteps of Kerouac, seeking enlightenment. Surely he muses, there must be more to life than this. But the sojourn ends in disillusion `...and I trudged back to where the car was parked, no closer to any kind of truth...'
On first single `I Will Possess Your Heart' a long percussive intro, repeats and builds, propelled by bass and drums overlaid with a simple repeated melodic fragment on keyboard and vibes. A rejected lover just can't let go, and his devotion is turning to obsession and possibly something darker. Gibbard has said this song is `about the inevitable disappointment people feel as they move through life, and things don't feel the way they expect. No experience will ever match up to the idealised version in your mind'.
`Cath...' is the first of a series of songs journaling the awful choices that we sometimes have to make in relationships. To compromise, and commit to someone who falls short of our ideal, or to allow our hearts to die. And Cath's choice seems particularly desperate to Gibbard who paints himself as someone who, had she but realised it, would have loved her. In a similar vein in `You can do better...' the protagonist recognises where he's well off, even though he's regularly tempted to stray, while `Your New Twin Sized Bed' with its hypnotically repeated chiming guitar figure offers the story of someone who has given up on ever finding a life partner. Seeing how defeated the subject is, the narrator is terrified by the awful thought of what his own future might hold. On `Pity and Fear' nameless partners of casual liaisons, entered into to dull the pain of loneliness, walk away apparently free from consequences while the protagonist sinks deeper and deeper.
On `No Sunlight' the bouncy summery music belies the lyrical content: the death of youthful innocence and optimism is followed by a desperate nihilistic despair, while `Grapevine Fires' offers some hopefulness amidst the blackness, because while it may only be `a matter of time before we all burn' the singer professes himself `content to spend that time here with you - there's nowhere I'd rather be'.
`The Ice Is Getting Thinner' is hardly a hopeful note on which to finish the album as Gibbard chronicles the slow demise of a relationship, as a couple grow apart, finding less and less in common but reluctant to say out loud what they know in their hearts, that the love that they shared is just an empty shell. Coloured by steel / slide guitar, this spare sparse piece comes as a relief after the relentlessly busy, driving, propulsive procession of songs that precede it.
'Narrow Stairs' is a step forward for a band that's continuing to develop, if not the giant leap that some were hoping for.
on 24 October 2015
This album initially doesn't appear as creative and appealing as the previous few albums (Plans, Transatlanticism) but after a few listens, certainly a few of the tracks shine amongst an otherwise 'average' album. Top tracks include Cath (which will immediately appeal to fans of the older, The Photo Album -era of Death Cab for Cutie and is a personal favourite), Bixby Canyon Bridge, Twin Sized Bed and Long Division. The more 'experimental' track, I Will Possess Your Heart is eerily atmospheric and certainly succeeds in creating the frosty scene it strives for - however the intro does not fare well with repeated listens, becoming rather repetitive and potentially quite skip-able.
Overall, if compared with the style of the previous albums, it may be disappointing in places, but as a darker sounding, simpler DCfC album, it is certainly worth the purchase for the tracks specified.
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 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.