Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs Review: A First Listen, Track-By-Track Analysis

Share on Nextdoor

I just got my promo stream of the new Death Cab for Cutie album Narrow Stairs, which is due May 13 from Atlantic Records. Excitement doesn't begin to describe my mood right now. I just threw it on the ol' computer here at work and am going to share my initial thoughts with you, loyal A to Z readers. Not doing much lyrical analysis, just to warn you; sonics at first are just easier.

[Added here after my listen.] After my first listen, it's by far the most diverse Death Cab album, if not the one where the band explores and challenges the scope of its sound. Production-wise, it's crystal-clear (at least through my crappy computer speakers), even if Stairs feels glossier than Plans in most spots -- mainly in vocals -- but not to the point of it being uncomfortable or cloying. Mostly, the extremes are just more pronounced: The "rock" songs sound much more aggressive, the radio-ready songs are more ear-friendly, quieter moments are more vulnerable, the synth/electro freakouts are entrenched more in songs. Every song sounds like it could come from a different album, and so it's too soon for me to tell whether the album is cohesive in the way that Transatlanticism or The Photo Album were.

Here are my first impressions of each tune.

1. "Bixby Canyon Bridge": You'd think it was Plans, Part Two at first. The song starts off with a dreamy jangly guitar (think: Out of Time-era R.E.M.) with lots of echoing space around and typically sweet, lonesome Ben Gibbard vocals. If you've seen the new Death Cab-on-a-cloud promo shots, that's what it sounds like; the band floating around in the stratosphere playing the tune. See, via the band's MySpace:

But then the drums kick in. Very loudly. Gibbard's vocals crack and fragment with distortion. The electric guitars kick in loudly. Everything strums in unison, like how bands who are insanely tight live rock out. The track ends instrumentally, with lots of abstract looping and gear-head noise (bet that's a Chris Walla influence).

2. "I Will Possess Your Heart": I've heard this song a ton already (as might perhaps you), so I'll refrain from reviewing. Some folks compare this to Talk Talk (ca. Laughing Stock); I hear Yo La Tengo, ca. their last few records.

3. "No Sunlight": A forceful bass line from Nick Harmer starts off (and dominates) the song, like an askew version of the Knack's "My Sharona." The song's very kicky and power-pop-indebted. (It's also 2:40 long only.) The sneaky guitar reminds me of 1980s U2, big time; piano kicks in about halfway through. This is a song to blast now that it's summer, at full volume out the car window. A definite highlight, also one I'll be going back to.

4. "Cath...": Another sunny guitar barnburner that feels like a lazy day in the country; slowed down a bit more, and this could be a rustic alt-country jam. Driven by jittery rhythms that somehow don't seem jagged or ragged. A sonic sequel to Plans' "Crooked Teeth," in a way, only far less poppy and more pensive.

5. "Talking Bird": A slow, sad, dreamy song with chin-quivering Gibbard vocal delivery and trudging-feet piano. Surprising this is track five on the album, as this is exactly the sort of song Death Cab uses to end their albums.

6. "You Can Do Better Than Me": Hello! A timpani roll, and then the song sounds exactly like a cousin to the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love": A marching-band-tempo/style snare drum and a jaunty organ dominate. At not even two minutes, it's almost Broadway-esque in length and genre. The song ends like this: "Cause you can do better than me / But I can [ED. NOTE: OR IS IT CAN'T?] do better than you / You can do better than me / But I can't do better than you."

7. "Grapevine Fires": The under-song bed is a Rhodes piano, which immediately makes me think of any Tori Amos song from the 2000s -- which isn't a far sonic comparison for this track. Fabulous harmony layering on the choruses, along with a lot of "ooh-ooh-ooh" workouts at the end. Midtempo and lounge-act-like. Death Cab's nod to Yacht Rock and '70s AM gold. Overall, though, rather boring.

8. "Your New Twin Sized Bed": Again, bizarrely Tori Amos at the beginning -- or alternately, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" or a Suzanne Vega song. No, really: Evocative, slightly twangy guitar that's dream-rock and made for Triple-A radio -- and in fact, the song's hook -- steady but unremarkable percussion and animated vocal choruses from Gibbard. As in, it feels like he's singing a story to you while you're sitting right next to him. Three minutes long, which is just the right length: The song swells at the end with some forceful vocals. Untraditional structure, but super catchy nonetheless. One of my favorites.

9. "Long Division": The most math-rocking -- and I use that term loosely and no pun intended -- thing they've done since The Photo Album. By that I mean that Gibbard's singing runs as fast as (if not slightly counter to) Harmer's funk-bass and drummer Jason McGerr's beats, a device the band used a lot on early albums to create movement and dynamics. A welcome bit of energy at this point in the album. Actually resembles new-school Minus the Bear or Pinback more than old-school Death Cab. A totally '70s ELO-like cheesed-out synth line runs through the latter half of the song, and Gibbard's vocals are layered and processed out quasi-robotically, again like '70s rockers. Another fave.

10. "Pity and Fear": Dark, jungle-like rhythms start the song off, something you might find from indie-electro acts. The rhythms in the song continue to push things forward, like drum-n-bass played a slightly slower BPM. Vocals are echoing and faraway and intertwine sometimes to act as the melody line with guitars, which drone and dart menacingly in the background. They aren't prominent until 3/4 of the way through the song, and then they're ominous and slashing, along with frenzied drumming. A song that moves forward and is very dynamic, but a huge departure for the band.

11. "The Ice is Getting Thinner": Remember what I said about track five up there? I meant it. This song is a lot like that track at first: Molasses, sighing guitars and bass, with vocals that are vaguely gospel hymn-like in its meter and phrasing. The most vulnerable, human-sounding song on the album, a twilight-of-life ending. An ideal coda.

-- Annie Zaleski

Scroll to read more Music News & Interviews articles (1)


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.