Best albums of 2008: #4 Death Cab For Cutie “Narrow stairs”

I got into Death Cab for Cutie with their breakthrough album, 2003’s “Transatlanticism”, but perhaps a year or so after its release. To be honest, I wasn’t sold on them right away, especially on that of the voice of frontman, Ben Gibbard. It took me a while to get used to, most definitely a few spins in my CD carousel. By the time 2005 rolled around and the band unleashed “Plans” upon the world, however, I was sold. I noted a slight change in sound with that album, from more guitar focused indie rock to something crisper and cleaner with a hint of the electronic. I imagined at the time that Gibbard’s work with Jimmy Tamborello in The Postal Service (whose 2004 album I really did fall for right away) must have informed this change some. I got to see the band live in 2006 while they were still touring “Plans” and was quite drawn in by it all.

Then, in early 2008, I heard “I will possess your heart”, the first single off the upcoming album, and I sensed a reversion back to the mean. This was more prog and rock than pop and electronic for sure. Now, I’m not saying I didn’t like “Plans”, no, not at all. It was a great album and a great balancing act. However, I was glad to see that the seesaw was tipping back into rock territory.

I’ve read that former guitarist Chris Walla had been quoted while the band was working on “Narrow stairs” as saying that the album was sounding “pretty weird and pretty spectacular; lots of blood” and further calling it “creepy and heavy”. Weird descriptions for sure when you think of how the final product sounds but I really like the idea of saying that there is “lots of blood” here. I can totally see that. Not that the album is a horror show but how Gibbard and company are always pouring their heart out into their music and putting it on display for us.

“Narrow stars” is a mighty fine album and complete, so it was hard to pick just three tunes for you but here is what I’ve got.


“No sunlight”: As the song’s title suggests, the lyrical themes and subject matter are dark. A cloudy day, tall and modern buildings blacking out light, the loss of innocence, the letting loose into independence, and finding oneself losing their ideals and dreams and optimism. Gibbard’s fresh-faced delivery makes you believe he is/was that way, which makes it all the more real and dire. And yet… and yet… the track is a boppy and toe-tapping number that weighs in at just two and half minutes, like a sniper attack aiming right for the heart. Yeah, it’s total Brecht.

“You can do better than me”: You want to talk heartbreak and self-deprecation? Check these lyrics out: “We’re starting to feel we stayed together out of fear of dying alone. I’ve been slipping through the years. My old clothes don’t fit like they once did so they hang like ghosts of the people I’ve been.” And is if that weren’t enough, Gibbard finishes you right off with this page ripped from Morrissey: “Cause you can do better than me but I can’t do better than you.” And like the last track, this is one short, not even two minutes, practically an interlude. The bass drums just chug along, pacing the organs that sound carnival-like, and Gibbard dances inside the ring, alone, alone, and alone, in a loveless relationship that is like a well-worn circus tent.

“I will possess your heart”: Ok. Here’s something different. The aforementioned first single off the album. It’s eight minutes in length, at least half of it an instrumental intro that throbs and beats itself deep into your soul. Heavy bass and twinkling keys dance and flirt with chiming guitars. It’s a total tease that builds and builds for over four and a half minutes, making you anxious for reprieve. Finally, Gibbard starts in with his obsessive, stalker monologue, words as creepy as those of “Every breath you take”. It’s a song that shouldn’t ever be a single, or a hit single at that, but it did very well, almost garnering the band a Grammy (if you’re impressed with that sort of thing).


Check back next Thursday for album #3. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Fleet Foxes  “Fleet Foxes”
9. The Submarines “Honeysuckle weeks”
8. Schools of Seven Bells “Alpinisms”
7. Glasvegas “Glasvegas”
6. Spiritualized “Songs in A & E”
5. Elbow “The seldom seen kid”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.

Best tunes of 1991: #6 Blur “There’s no other way”

<< #7    |    #5 >>

I’ve just spent the last few days at a cottage with some of my best friends, old friends, many of whom I’ve known since high school and earlier. We whiled most of the time just hanging out, telling jokes, reliving ancient histories, and listening to tunes. So of course, this particular tune lines right up with feelings and memories drummed up this weekend.

Most of you regular visitors to these pages will know that I am still a huge Blur fan, even after all these years. And well, it all started with their debut album, “Leisure”. When I was in my final year of high school, I had a copy of it on cassette tape, recorded to one side of a C90 and on the other was Chapterhouse’s debut album, “Whirlpool”, both from compact discs borrowed from a friend’s then girlfriend. That I had both albums on one cassette and that this cassette spent plenty of time in my Walkman and bedroom stereo really shines a light on where I was musically in 1991. Yes, I was gobbling up everything that fit into either the shoegaze or madchester pigeonholes.

And while Chapterhouse were decidedly of the shoegaze and dream pop ilk, Blur hadn’t quite declared their mission statement yet, that would come on their sophomore album (tales for another time). So “Leisure” was a bit of a mixed bag, Blur dipping their toes and waggling them in both pools. It says something about the band’s talent and Damon Albarn’s prowess as a songwriter that the album doesn’t feel disjointed at all and that it’s got some amazing tracks that are still considered fan favourites today.

One of these is “There’s no other way”, the second single to be released off “Leisure”. It greets us with a big hello of sliding guitar riff care of Graham Coxon and a big and funky Dave Rowntree beat accoutred with a liberal shake of the tambourine. Alex James shakes his head with his backbone bass, cigarette dangling from his lips and Damon Albarn adds some organs that sound ripped from Rob Collins’ (of The Charlatans) repertoire. All the while, he’s singing about how it sucks to grow up.

“There’s no other way. All that you can do is watch them play.”

It definitely sounds of its time and from a bunch of art school kids in London, it feels like they’ve been visiting the dance halls in Manchester quite a bit. Not that I complained then, and I still don’t.

And oh yeah, if you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth clicking below just to see Damon’s haircut from back then.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1991 list, click here.

Best albums of 2008: #5 Elbow “The seldom seen kid”

I’d like to say that I’ve been a fan of Elbow since the beginning but that wouldn’t be technically accurate. The band has been around since 1990 or 1991, albeit under a different name up to 1997 when they adopted their current moniker. I can say, however, that I caught on to their debut album, “Asleep in the back”, shortly after its release in 2001. (Yes, it took them that long to finally get a record out but that’s another story.) The album quickly became a favourite, spent months in my CD carousel, and I would name-drop them as often as possible when talking music with friends. It got so that it was a running joke. But I couldn’t help it. I just couldn’t get enough of this band’s dense atmospheric sound, all anchored by Guy Garvey’s unique, emotive vocals. They were like nothing else out there at the time. I once tried finding a comparison point and the best I could do was put Peter Gabriel in charge of a more-orchestral oriented Coldplay or Gene but even that seemed like I was trying to force it too much. My crush on Elbow only grew over time, as with each consecutive album their sound grew lusher and more complex, and they veered further and further away from those tropes that defined the traditional rock and roll band.

Elbow’s “The seldom seen kid” is the band’s fourth studio album and first on the Fiction records imprint. The album won the 2008 Mercury prize, an honour that the debut was nominated for but did not win. It certainly was up there with the debut as one of my own favourite of Elbow’s albums up to that point, setting a high water mark that its successor, 2011’s “Build a rocket boys!” couldn’t possibly reach.

‘Beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ are terms that are often inaccurately ascribed to music and are terms that shouldn’t be used lightly. But in Elbow’s case, ‘beauty’ is the most apt term I can think of and it could easily be the name of their particular style of music. “The seldom seen kid”, like Elbow’s other albums, doesn’t just create at an atmospheric sound, but whole worlds for you to inhabit, to live and laugh and cry in, as one song bleeds into the next. Each song is painstakingly arranged, the opulent instrumentation acting like a protective carriage to its soul: Garvey’s voice.

If you’ve never listened to Elbow before, “The seldom seen kid” would be a wonderful place to start. Don’t know where to begin? I’d say at the beginning but failing that, here are my three picks for you to sample.


”The fix”: “The fix is in. The odds that I got were delicious. The fix is in. The jockey is cocky and vicious.” This track has the added bonus of being touched by the hand of another talented musician with immediately recognizable vocals: Richard Hawley. His rich baritone vocals jive perfectly with Garvey’s, either while trading coyly or while in pleasant harmony. It is a slinky piece, obviously influenced by Hawley’s mere presence and his penchant for gleefully old-school sounds, tempered with his golden work on guitars.

”Grounds for divorce”: “There’s a hole in my neighbourhood, down which of late I cannot help but fall.” With a song title like this, it’s fitting that the song plays like one a chain gang might sing. From the marching drum beat to the call and response vocals in the intro to the dirty, southern bass line throughout, Garvey us leads through a rousing romp that is guaranteed to get you stomping.

”One day like this”: “So throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year would see me right.” With six and a half minutes of string flourishes, peppy beats, and uplifting vocal twists and turns, this song makes an ambitious bid for the title of my favourite Elbow track. It’s just one of those songs for which the volume can never be turned up quite enough. While listening to it, you want its blissful ecstasy to fill every crevice of your hearing, to blot the sounds of your humdrum day. You want to join in on the singalong refrain that carries on through the last half of the song with the thought that maybe tomorrow will be that day. Yup. Beautiful.


Check back next Thursday for album #4. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Fleet Foxes  “Fleet Foxes”
9. The Submarines “Honeysuckle weeks”
8. Schools of Seven Bells “Alpinisms”
7. Glasvegas “Glasvegas”
6. Spiritualized “Songs in A & E”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.