Indie rock
May 13, 2008

When I heard that Death Cab for Cutie’s “Narrow Stairs,” which was released last month, was the number one album in the country, my first thought was, “I wonder what Seth Cohen would think.”

The fictional character and Death Cab uber-fan from the late television sitcom, “The O.C.” arguably set the wheels in motion for the indie darling’s mainstream success (the New York Times’ comically highbrow description of the group is “a bookish indie-rock quartet from Seattle”).

The band’s residency at the top of the charts was short-lived — one week, before they were overtaken by 3 Doors Down — but significant. The members of Death Cab for Cutie (singer Ben Gibbard, guitarist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr) have found themselves in that precarious position that independent bands both court and are simultaneously wary of — achieving undeniable mainstream success, and all the pressures and less-than-admirable associations that come with it. After all, wasn’t the number-one slot a position occupied by Mariah Carey only a few weeks prior?

But one thing no one can accuse Death Cab for Cutie of doing is altering its sound to reach a larger fan base. If anything, the band’s done the opposite; exploring new directions in terms of song structure and demonstrating a fearless disregard for the risk of alienating listeners.

Need an example? How about the band’s decision to release “I Will Possess Your Heart,” an eight-and-a-half-minute epic, as the album’s first single? A daring move to say the least, but one that works, thanks in large part to the groovy bassline courtesy of Harmer that anchors the extended jam.

“Narrow Stairs” revisits Gibbard’s knack for touching metaphors, most notably on “Your New Twin Sized Bed.” “You look so defeated lying there in your new twin sized bed,” he muses, “With a single pillow underneath your single head.” On the bouncy “No Sunlight” (this record’s “Soul Meets Body”) the singer cements his position as potentially the only vocalist who can make the line “The optimist died inside of me” sound gleeful.

For all the relationship troubles Gibbard speaks of in his songs, he has an uncanny ability to understand the female psyche. The subject of “Cath … ” is a bride who suddenly realizes her life is nothing like she imagined it would be. “Cath, it seems that you lived someone else’s dream / In a hand-me-down wedding dress / Where the things that could have been are repressed,” Gibbard sings. Longtime fans will likely wonder if the woman is a younger incarnation of the subject of Transatlanticism’s “Death of an Interior Decorator.”

Overall, “Narrow Stairs” is a good record that, on more than one occasion, achieves greatness (see: “Grapevine Fires,” a bittersweet waltz that encapsulates Gibbard and his bandmates’ ability to turn poetry into song). Walla’s pristine production, per usual, creates a unified whole, elevating the album into a tightly-woven collection. But unfortunately, “Narrow Stairs” doesn’t live up to the high standard the band set for itself with such four-star releases as 2003’s “Transatlanticism” and 2005’s Grammy-nominated “Plans.” That said, at least from this listener’s perspective, it would be difficult — if not impossible — for any of their subsequent albums to do so.

There’s a chance that, five years from now, fans will look at the moment that “Narrow Stairs” became a chart-topper as the moment Death Cab for Cutie jumped the shark. Whether that’s the case or not, the fact remains that the foursome is still making music of a caliber which far surpasses that of their new contemporaries’.

Death Cab for Cutie Tour Dates:

Jun 2 Orpheum Theatre Minneapolis, Minnesota
Jun 3 Millenium Park Pritzker Pavilion Chicago, Illinois
Jun 4 Fox Theatre Detroit, Michigan
Jun 6 Jacques Cartier Pier Montreal, Quebec
Jun 7 Toronto Olympic Island Toronto, Ontario
Jun 9 Merriweather Post Pavilion Columbia, Maryland
Jun 10 McCarren Park Pool Brooklyn, New York
Jun 12 Mann Center for Performing Arts Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Jun 13 Plain Dealer Pavilion Cleveland, Ohio
Jun 14 The Lawn at White River State Indianapolis, Indiana
Jun 15 Bonnaroo Manchester, Tennessee
Jun 17 Nokia Theatre Grand Prairie, Texas
Jun 19 Mesa Amphitheatre Mesa, Arizona
Jun 20 SDSU Open Air Theatre San Diego, California
Jun 21 Greek Theatre Berkeley Berkeley, California
Jun 23 Nokia Theatre Los Angeles, California
Jun 24 Santa Barbara Bowl Santa Barbara, California

International dates:

Jul 3 Quart Festival Kristiansand
Jul 5 Arvikafestivalen Arvika
Jul 7 Alhambra Paris
Jul 8 Riverenhof (Open Air) Antwerp
Jul 9 Live Music Hall Cologne
Jul 10 Melkweg Amsterdam
Jul 11 Kesselhaus Berlin
Jul 12 Grosse Freiheit 36 Hamburg
Jul 15 Birmingham Academy Birmingham
Jul 16 Manchester Apollo Manchester
Jul 17 Brixton Academy Brixton, London
Jul 18 Latitude Festival @ Henham Park Southwold, London and South East
Jul 20 Benicassim Festival Benicassim, Castell³n
Jul 27 Pemberton Festival Pemberton, BC
Aug 9 Summer Sonic Festival Tokyo
Aug 10 Summer Sonic Festival Osaka
Aug 17 The Palace Melbourne, Victoria
Aug 18 The Enmore Newtown, New South Wales
Aug 20 Metropolis Fremantle, Western Australia
Aug 22 The Tivoli Fortitude Valley, Queensland

About The Author

Elizabeth Raftery is senior editor of Blast. Follow her on Twitter.

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