Tuesday, May 13, 2008

First Blush: Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs

Bellingham, Washington's Death Cab for Cutie have achieved popularity few of even their most ardent supporters would have predicted. Being featured on The O.C. at the height of its run certainly didn't hurt. On their first three releases, the band still felt "small," with frontman Ben Gibbard's songwriting being its main strength. The addition of drummer Jason McGerr along with increased participation from guitarist Chris Walla took the impeccably crafted 2003 release, Transatlanticism, to a higher level than previous efforts. 2005's Plans, while not as dynamic as their previous release, strongly blended Gibbard's low-key songs with atmospheric crafting from the rest of the band, giving the group their biggest hits to date. Narrow Stairs, out today, is their sixth full-length release and has many people expecting even bigger things from the band. I could go on like this, but enough of my yakkin', let's boogie!

Track 1 - Bixby Canyon Bridge
Echoey guitar sets up Gibbard skwawking a first-person narrative. The vocals nearly swing in the early going before we get to a light, quick-thumping middle section. The drums are pretty active, but everything else is just kinda there. Its simplicity feels new but also less than what the band is capable of.

Track 2 - I will Possess Your Heart
We start with an interesting baseline that continues for about 32 minutes. A van just drove by here with the insignia "Lemoncello Plumbing." Is that the owners name? Limoncello is a sweet, tasty liqueur. WTF? Maybe they set up piping so that you can get the limoncello directly from your freezer to your mouth without any getting-up-off-the-couch. Gibbard finally chimes in at 4:30. This single came out several weeks ago, so I already know that it's really catchy if a bit straight. We get a classic DCFC gear shift at the 6:42 mark: "You reject my advances and desperate pleas. I will let you let me down so easily." But then we go back to the same thing as before. It's a solid track, but far from dynamic. I'm getting impatient.

Track 3 - No Sunlight
Another really straightforward track, this sounds like it belongs on The Photo Album (their weakest release). It could be a hit single, of course. But it's not why I got into the band.

Track 4 - Cath...
It wouldn't be a Death Cab album if we didn't have a track named after a girl. But now I look up the discography and quickly realize that I'm full of shit (the only previous one is "What Sarah Said"). More busy drums accompany their classic style. This is the kind of song that could appear on any of their albums and just makes your head bob whenever it comes on. The kids are gonna sing their brains out to this song at the live show.

Track 5 - Talking Bird
"1-2-3-4 -- Oh, my talking bird. Though you know so few words. They're on infinite repeat. Like your brain can't keep up with your beak." I think this is not really about a bird. More likely an old friend that Gibbard's sick of, right? "The longer you think, the less you know what to do." OK, maybe it's a bird. Either way, it's another tune on this album that has few changes, except this one is slow and low. Could be good live, though.

Track 6 - You Can Do Better Than Me
We get a little organ and tambourine at the start of this one. Again, it's pretty straight, but a new sound with excellent percussion. It's rock doo-wop that reminds me a bit of The Beatles. "You can do better than me, but I can't do better than you." I'll call this one "cute."

Track 7 - Grapevine Fires
A sweet, mellow track which features long vocal tones. So far, it's a real nice track, and I have the feeling it will grow with time. Could be the gem of the album, even though it doesn't rock in the least.

Track 8 - Your New Twin Sized Bed
More beds. This has the vibe of DCFC covering Cat Stevens, told in the second person. I mean that in a good way. Again, things keep going straight and are pretty basic, but it's another song you just want to enjoy, and the band's made it easy to do that. Could be a huge, sentimental hit.

Track 9 - Long Division
Driving drums and bass give way to guitar melody. It's very "We have the facts and we're voting yes." Even down to the lyrics. This will satisfy the band's fans for sure. The booklet with the CD has pages of different size. I'd compare it to the Hungry Hunger Caterpillar, but "We have the facts..." fit that bill much better. I'm sure there's some children's book I'm forgetting. Whatever, I'm boring you right now. Sorry.

Track 10 - Pity and Fear
Dark beginning (it's about damn time). "I have, such envy, for this stranger lying next to me." The drums pick up at 1:39. It's a solid track, but once again, we're missing the coda section that has long been the hallmark of DCFC's best work. It's not a departure for them, but an avoidance of what they do best. Then the song just abruptly ends.

Track 11 - The Ice Is Getting Thinner
We're coming to the end of the album, and I don't think I've been excited once. It's sparse; just vocals that sound like "why you have been sooooo sad" with a little counter from the bass. The guitar adds to the sadness with a small solo. And we wind down this album meekly.

A lot of the tracks intentionally blend together, which actually works pretty well. So many of the songs start and end with the same beat/line/plan without any adjustments in between. That the tracks connect gives some degree of flow that wouldn't be there otherwise. I keep wanting Transatlanticism, and this certainly isn't that. Maybe I'm just being selfish. Right now, I have to ask myself, "Is it better than The Photo Album?" As I said, it's their weakest, but it's by no means without merit. I'm inclined to put it ahead of that one, but behind all their others. Plans grew on me in unexpected ways. Maybe this one will also.

Amazon.com and Circuit City are your best bets on price (9.99). With the a full "sticker price" of 18.98, the time to purchase is now. I realize this isn't exactly a positive review. The songs are all good, I just feel like they're missing something. I'll give it more blushes and see how it grows on me. What does everyone else think?


Kozy said...

It's a must buy. Go out to Circuit City, or Rolling Stone, or wherever buy music and pick it up today!

Kozy said...

I also wanted to comment on the implication that the success of DCFC and The O.C. are somehow intertwined. I have heard you make this assertion before and I think I told you then as well that I disagree.

Did the O.C. somehow catapult the band into stardom?

Below is a list of every song/band that appeared on an O.C. soundtrack. Things to note:

1) DCFC appears on only one soundtrack
2) Soundtrack artists include Ben Kweller, The Killers, Doves, Shout Out Louds, Mates of State, Rogue Wave (twice), Futureheads, Eels (twice) and LCD Soundsystem. Should we assume that since these bands appeared on an O.C. soundtrack that they owe considerable amounts of their popularity to the TV show?
3) DCFC released their best album Transatlanticism October 7, 2003. The O.C. premiered in August, 2003. I think that it is mere coincidence that both were popular at the same time. When you put out a great album people listen.
4) Only one band (to my recollection) ever appeared on the show, Rooney, which had a modest hit song in the mid 90's. DCFC never appeared on the show.

Songs/Bands Featured on an O.C. Soundtrack
1. Paint The Silence/South
2. Just A Ride/Jem
3. Honey And The Moon/Joseph Arthur
4. The Way We Get By/Spoon
5. Move On/Jet
6. How Good It Can Be/The 88
7. Caught By The River/Doves
8. Rain City/Turin Brakes
9. We Used To Be Friends/The Dandy Warhols
10. Dice/Finley Quaye & William Orbit
11. Orange Sky/Alexi Murdoch
12. California/Phantom Planet
13. Saturday Morning -- Eels
14. Hello Sunshine -- Super Furry Animals
15. Smile Like You Mean It -- The Killers
16. A Lack of Color -- Death Cab for Cutie
17. Specialist -- Interpol
18. Something Pretty -- Patrick Park
19. You Got Me All Wrong -- Dios Malos
20. If You Leave -- Nada Surf
21. Big Sur -- The Thrills
22. Little House of Savages -- The Walkmen
23. Trouble Sleeping -- The Perishers
24. So Sweet -- Jonathan Rice
25. Popular Mechanics for Lovers -- Beulah
26. Walnut Tree -- Keane
27. Maybe I'm Amazed -- Jem
28. Eastern Glow -- The Album Leaf
29. The Christmas Song - The Raveonettes
30. Last Christmas - Jimmy Eat World
31. Just Like Christmas - Low
32. Merry Xmas Everybody - Rooney L
33. Rock of Ages - Ben Kweller
34. Christmas With You is the Best - The Long Winters
35. Christmas is Going to the Dogs - Eels
36. Christmas - Leona Naess
37. Maybe This Christmas - Ron Sexsmith
38. Decent Days And Nights The Futureheads
39. Goodnight And Go (Album Version) Imogen Heap
40. Fortress (Album Version) Pinback 4:09 Album Only
41. On The Table (Album Version) A.C. Newman 3:56 $0.99
42. To Be Alone With You (Album Version) Sufjan Stevens 2:45 $0.99
43. Play (Album Version) Flunk
44. Scarecrow (Album Version) Beck
45. The View (Album Version) Modest Mouse
46. Hardcore Days & Softcore Nights (Album Version) Aqueduct
47. Cartwheels (Album Version) Reindeer Section 4
48. Eve, The Apple Of My Eye (Album Version) Bell X1
49. Champagne Supernova (Album Version)
50. Rock & Roll Queen -- Subways
51. Reason is Treason -- Kasabian
52. Wish I Was Dead Pt.2 -- Shout Out Louds
53. Daft PUnk Is Playing At My House -- LCD Soundsystem
54. Publish My Love -- Rogue Wave
55. Forever Young -- Youth Group
56. Requiem for O.M.M. -- Of Montreal
57. Kids with Guns -- Gorillaz
58. Na Na Na Na Naah -- Kaiser Chiefs
59. Your Ex-Lover Is Dead -- Stars
60. California 2005 -- Phantom Planet
61. Hide and Seek -- Imogen Heap
62. Float On -- Goldspot Listen Listen
63. I Turn My Camera On -- Rock Kills Kid
64. Pretty Vacant -- Lady Sovereign
65. California -- Mates Of State
66. Wasted -- Pinback
67. Can't Get It Out Of My Head -- John Paul White
68. Debaser -- Rogue Wave Listen Listen
69. Hello Sunshine -- Syd Matters
70. Smile Like You Mean It -- Tally Hall
71. Come Into Our Room -- The M's
72. The End's Not Near -- Band Of Horses
73. Into Dust -- Ashtar Command

Reed said...

Soundtrack schmoundtrack. Honestly, I've only seen a total of eight seconds of actual O.C. footage, so perhaps I'm a bit out over my skis. But the band performed on the show. Check it. Money quote from that article: "Since its earliest episodes, the band has occupied a minor role on 'The O.C.' as Seth Cohen's favorite band. A Death Cab poster hangs in his bedroom. Death Cab's music wafts in the background during a number of sequences."

Transatlanticism was a superb album, but their fan base remained indie rawk aficionados, not teens, after its release. In the summer of 2004, at a Q101 show in Chicago, they opened for Modest Mouse. A year later, they were a headlining act on Chicago's initial Lollapalooza experiment (and headlined again the following year). In spring of 2005, they played an all-ages show at the Riv that was nearly 100% high-schoolers, a major change to their core demographic.

The other thing pushing them to stardom (not merely indie-stardom) was Gibbard's role in The Postal Service. Certainly that had an impact, but you can't tell me that because they only had one song placed on the soundtrack that The O.C. exposure didn't help bring in the younger set.