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.

100 best covers: #87 Amy Millan “I will follow you into the dark”

<< #88    |    #86 >>

…And speaking of Death Cab for Cutie… Here’s a cover by Stars vocalist Amy Milan of the standout single from Death Cab for Cutie’s fifth album, “Plans”.

The original was recorded by frontman Ben Gibbard by himself on guitar, using just the one microphone. The result is a quiet and lonely sounding number that is kind of morbid on first listen but is quite romantic upon further reflection. The idea that one loves the other so much that he or she would them even into death to keep them company is quite lovely. “I will follow you into the dark” didn’t originally chart very high as a single but has since become one of the band’s best-selling, still receives quite a bit of radio play, and has been covered many times over by various artists.

Canadian songstress Amy Millan covered it a mere four years after the original’s initial release for her second solo record, “Masters of the burial”. Hers is slightly longer than the original’s three minutes and markedly different in style and tone. A full band backs her. The use of banjo and lap steel giving it a decidedly old time country feel. Her soft touch on vocals is more upbeat than in Gibbard’s original but definitely lends the subject matter the weight it deserves.

“If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied
Illuminate the no’s on their vacancy signs
If there’s no one beside you when your soul embarks
Then I’ll follow you into the dark”

I am a fan of both of these. In fact, I refuse to pick a favourite. Thoughts?

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.

Best tunes of 2011: #29 Death Cab For Cutie “You are a tourist”

<< #30    |    #28 >>

By the time 2011 rolled around, Death Cab for Cutie had been at it for fourteen years. I had been following them for just over half of that time, discovering them, along with a boatload of others, with their 2003 album, “Transatlanticism”. The Washington-based indie pop/rock band has been pretty solid in releasing quality albums since that time, impressively sustained through a constantly evolving sound. But for some reason, with each album, my interest has faded some. I was fanatical with “Transatlanticism” and then, with 2005’s “Plans” but three albums later, I have been much less so. In fact, when sitting down to write this, I didn’t just listen to this one song. I had to listen to the whole album because I honestly couldn’t remember what it sounded like.

Of course, when I listened to “Codes and keys”, I loved it all over again. It was like I was back in 2011 and I re-experienced the whole gamut of emotions. From the excitement at seeing their name listed as headliner on the main stage on the final night of Bluesfest to the disappointment I felt when I realized I would have to miss it because I had a prior engagement. To the surprise when I heard their set was cancelled that night when the stage collapsed due to a violent storm and the commiseration with those attending that didn’t get to experience them live. They’ve yet to return to Ottawa as promised but I can at least say I got to see them in 2006 when they toured for “Plans”.

“You are a tourist” was the first single released off “Codes and keys” and managed the group their first hit single, charting high on multiple singles charts and hitting number one on a few of these. Written and recorded during the period where frontman Ben Gibbard was married to Zoey Deschanel, the subject matter of the album’s lyrics are less melancholic than previous efforts. The sound, too, is quite a change from its predecessors, being less guitar driven. “You are a tourist” is definitely a drums forward piece, the rhythm catching hold of the listener right away. Meanwhile, the bass line just hangs out, there in the low end, waving hello and minding its own business. The keyboards tinkle and the guitars jump in for flourishes, face grating though they can get at times, just to remind us they’re still there. Gibbard is suggesting that change is a good thing, positively positing that when you feel a tourist in your own town, it’s time to move on.

Yep. I listened to the song and wondered to myself how I let it go so long between listens. It won’t happen again.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2011 list, click here.