Thursday, May 29, 2008

Narrow Stairs

Death Cab for Cutie’s latest record is a rollercoaster, with every good to great song followed by a poor to middling one. Narrow Stairs starts on a high: “Bixby Canyon Bridge” shows off the band’s newfound rock edge, a more “abrasive” sound they promised to deliver in pre-release interviews.
     But it’s quickly followed by one of the year’s great musical head-scratchers, the meandering, eight-minute jam “I Will Possess Your Heart.” Released as a first single in March, the tuneless track still strikes me as more of a “we can do anything we want” statement rather than a pop song.
     And pop songs are what Death Cab does best, as the band proves on The Weakerthans-like “No Sunlight” and album standout, “Cath....” With its springy bass line and catchy riff, it could be the song of the summer.
     Lyrically, things aren’t so breezy. Lead singer Ben Gibbard follows the same songwriting playbook as Stars do, overlaying poppier melodies on dark, often depressing, lyrics. “I have such envy for the stranger lying next to me,” Gibbard begins on “Pity and Fear,” a hopeless sentiment that’s repeated often on Narrow Stairs. Album closer “The Ice Is Getting Thinner,” is a particular bummer (“We buried our love in a wintery grave / A lump in the snow was all that we made”). And, ultimately, so’s the fact that the uneven Narrow Stairs fails to improve on their excellent last record, Plans, Death Cab’s major-label debut. B
(Death Cab for Cutie join Stars for a show on Toronto’s Olympic Island on June 7.)

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