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Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Atlantic Records
www.deathcabforcutie.com


Now expected like the next coming messiah, Death Cab For Cutie and their music would be without a doubt one of the most universally respected and inoffensive acts present in today's current musical spectrum. Drumming up little in the way of negative criticism and being one of the top-played artists on music tracking websites like Last.FM seems to solidify the feeling that Ben Gibbard and company can do no wrong. And so it would be no surprise to say that their latest album Narrow Stairs was garnering much prerelease excitement, as those both hugely dedicated and those slightly intrigued began checking off the calender days 'til the album's release.

And why not? 2005's Plans was heralded by many as their best work to date and has already gone down in some indie buffs' books as a modern day classic. There was little question as to whether Narrow Stairs would deliver on the goods, considering that Death Cab For Cutie have yet to release a single song that couldn't be considered at least decent to good, but how well the foursome is able to deliver their standard emotional ballads and upbeat jugband blues is another question.

The album starts naked with "Bixby Canyon Bridge" which, like traditional Death Cab tracks, starts stripped and quiet and slowly builds to an emotional climax, letting the listener believe that they will be in for another extraordinary collection of lamentations on heartbreak and the struggles of distance. But whereas the opener seems to promise more of what all us fans have grown to expect, Narrow Stairs could very well disappoint in some areas.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" lacks the creative punch of past singles like "Soul Meets Body" and "The Sound of Settling", feeling like a B-side to one of Death Cab's more polished and healthy songs. Though brash to say, it could very well be considered one of the band's weakest tracks in their entire catalogue, showing little in the way of the ingenious lyrical stylings of Gibbard and the playful engagingness of their instrumentals. Narrow Stairs remains a little rocky throughout the first half of the record as "Cath..." feels overly distorted and rushed, with the cutesy melody of "No Sunlight" and twistedly metaphorical lyrics of "Talking Bird" not being nearly enough to keep the listener from feeling slightly concerned for the direction of the record.

But dear listener, don't be deceived just yet. Leave it to the shortest track on the album to be the one to turn things around. Clocking in at just under two minutes, "You Can Do Better Than Me" ushers in the greatness that Death Cab has long been known to deliver. A slow pseudo-ragtime beat chugs along with choppy piano chords and a tambourine chime while Gibbard recites some of the most genuinely adoring love lyrics heard in recent years: "I have to face the truth that no one could ever look at me like you do/like I'm something worth holding onto." Absolutely stellar in both its construction and its simplicity, the little love song that could is what gives Narrow Stairs its jumpstart and propels its engine into high velocity.

Later tracks like "Your New Twin Sized Bed" unleash the golden pen within Gibbard that plays with the art of the metaphor while never becoming too cryptic to isolate listeners. (Seriously, when is he going to release a book of poetry?) The album reaches its emotional peak during the closing track, "The Ice Is Getting Thinner". Like former Death Cab albums, the final song is the much anticipated somber reflective number. It carries on with falsetto vocals and a guitar as delicate as the deteriorating ice to which Gibbard juxtaposes a dying love. It's in this melancholy confession that the genius of Death Cab For Cutie comes to light: They never become self-loathing or focus too much on the sadness of the situations that they write on, instead choosing to let the listener feel the weight of emotion themselves through the vehicle of the music and the bluntly astute writing.

It may not be as instantly effective and moving as Plans, or as heartbreakingly sublime as Transatlanticism, but given some time, [Narrow Stairs] could grow quite a bit on the listener. Even their misses could be considered better than average, but it would still be wrong to view Narrow Stairs as a perfect record, especially in comparison with the foursome's past two records which impeccably presented the talents of the better to the delight of the listener. Though overall it is a success, Narrow Stairs seems to be just a few steps short of greatness.

-Josh Page

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