Saturday, May 17, 2008

How Narrow are your Stairs!

Review: Narrow Stairs

"Unquestionably the best thing Death Cab has ever done" from music writers; "I heard it was really bad" from music listeners. One thing's for sure: we're not on Barsuk anymore. This is apparently Death Cab's seventh studio CD, or sixth, depending on what you consider a "studio CD". (I think that's akin to giving an adequate definition for "indie" or "alternative", so we're going to ignore the question for now.) Indie kids were all abuzz over The Photo Album and Transatlanticism--I can never keep these two straight, but they're both good. Then came the dreaded Major Label Debut of Plans, where droves of indie kids started whining, because "Soul Meets Body" was played on mainstream radio airwaves. Talk about an infraction.

They'd of course argue that they weren't complaining about that, they were lamenting the decline in quality associated with Being on a Major Label. Except, you know, there wasn't a real decline in quality. In fact, the album sold a million copies--which, in retrospect, probably didn't help in the eyes of those hardcore indie kids either. No, Plants was not the same record as Transatlanticism, but if it were the same, there would be complaints about that too.

Oh, to hear the indie kid reaction now.

If Plans isn't the same record as the previous ones were, then Narrow Stairs isn't in the same dimension. I've talked already about the album's influences and what about it made me sort of scared. I remarked specifically about the CD sounding like 1960s wind band music, and thankfully it does not. It does, however, sound like whatever-decade prog-rock, a direction that I was not at all expecting the album to go in. It's not per se bad, except when the songs get too absorbed in their own progginess to seem like Death Cab anymore.

"Gee, Mr. Gibbard! Is that a B3 rock organ I hear on 'You Can Do Better Than Me'?"
"Yes, it is, clever listener! Did you hear it anywhere else?"
"Now that you mention it, at the end of 'Grapevine Fires'! And I thought it really interesting how you included not real strings, but synthesized strings in 'Your New Twin-Sized Bed'."
"Right, that gave it a completely unique sound. But can you guess what my favorite random instrument to throw in was?"
"Easy! The tabla on 'Pity and Fear', of course."

All of the positive reviews I've already read have said things like Death Cab has traded in their brightness for something dark and brooding, a process which we saw beginning on Plans and that's continued into Narrow Stairs. And they say this as if it made the CD significantly better. If dark and pessimistic is your cup of tea, then you'll get along with this album splendidly. See "No Sunlight" as an immediate example of this mood.

For those of us that like a little more sunshine in our music, "Long Division" sounds happy enough, and ironically "No Sunlight" does too. I agree with just about every other reviewer out there in that "Cath..." is the best song on the album, no matter what mood you expect to get out of Death Cab. And "The Ice is Getting Thinner" is probably the weakest track in both energy and storytelling--shouldn't the otherwise lyrically adept Death Cab be able to come up with some better metaphor than thin ice?

On a whole, don't let terms like "sludgy" and "dissonant" and "lunar" scare you. Narrow Stairs doesn't turn into any of the horror that it conceivably could. While it's not as good as Plans or Transatlanticism, at no point did I ever ask aloud, "Death Cab, what in the hell are you doing?" Maybe a few "?" thought to myself, but that's going to arise anytime something takes a new direction, regardless of if that direction turns out be good or bad. Here, it turns out to be mostly decent, with a few missteps. Not "the best thing they've ever done" by a long shot, but after the disappointment I'd been bracing myself for since February, something of a pleasant surprise.

Currently listening: "We Are What You Say," Sufjan Stevens

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