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Hopeless romantics

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs
(Atlantic Records)
4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: July 31, 2008
>Death Cab For Cutie

Review by Tony Bonyata

On their sixth full-length effort, Narrow Stairs, indie rockers Death Cab For Cutie have turned in what could be their most maudlin collection of pop music to date. Funny that it's also, quite possibly, their strongest to date.

Like The Decemberists who signed to a major label on their last album, Death Cab For Cutie's inking with Atlantic Records for this record (after a long stint with the venerable indie label Barsuk Records) shows no signs of commercial compromise, as the band has turned in a collection of edgy, dissonant and, at times, near-perfect pop songs. This is proven straight out of the gate with their first single from the record "I Will Possess Your Heart," a song which starts out with a German 'motorik' rhythm as the band weaves buzzing guitar feedback and ghostly piano lines in and out of this lengthy psychedelic jam - five whole minutes before Gibbard even delivers his first vocal line.

Their follow-up single "Cath...," while no less engaging, is a completely different animal - a perfect blend of early '90s alternative rock with modern melody-driven indie pop. Opening track "Bixby Canyon Bridge" opens as a gentle ballad kissed by haunting sonics before a proud pounding rhythm turns this sweet lullaby into a snarling, sinewy rock jam. While the track "You Can Do Better Than Me," isn't the strongest composition on the record, it's saved by the rich piano-driven chamber pop arrangement a'la The Beach Boys Pet Sounds.

As always, Gibbard's soothing, slightly high-pitched vocals meld perfectly with their music, even when it takes on a more downtrodden tone, as on "Talking Bird" and the closing track "The Ice Is Getting Thinner," a melancholic song of waning love where Gibbard states, "We're not the same dear as we used to be. The seasons have changed and so have we. There's little we can say and even less than we can do, to stop the ice from getting thinner under me and you." Gibbard continues to evaluate love and relationships on "Pity and Fear," where he bemoans, "I have such a envy for this stranger lying next to me who awakes in the night and slips out into the pre-dawn light. With no words, a clean escape, no promises or messes made," while despite sounding musically more upbeat and hopeful on "Your New Twin Sized Bed," he continues, "Guess you decided that that old queen holds more space than you would need. Now it's in the alley behind your apartment with a sign that says it's free. And I hope you have more luck with this than me." Whether dejected in love or just caught as an innocent bystander in a failed relationship Gibbard (and certainly augmented by bandmembers Chris Walla, Nicholas Harmer and Jason McGerr) proves that through it all he's a hopeless romantic with the will to keep looking ahead... which is exactly what Death Cab For Cutie have done on this fine effort.

Watch Death Cab For Cutie - "I Will Possess Your Heart" video

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