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Boomkat Product Review:
On Narrow Stairs, Death Cab For Cutie consolidate their transition from indie big fish to major label stars with an album that seems to be consciously, defiantly alternative. Choosing an eight-and-a-half minute krautrock song for a single is a fairly bold statement in itself, and however much of a grower 'I Will Possess Your Heart' turns out to be, it's still nowhere near as infused with Death Cab's peppy pop brilliance as just about everything else on this album. The single seems to strive towards the same motorik ambitions as Wilco's 'Spiders (Kidsmoke)', or perhaps more appropriately, Coldplay's Kraftwerk riff-pinching 'Talk': this is an otherwise very commercial band striving for a glimmer of sophistication that wouldn't otherwise be a part of their repertoire. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, Ben Gibbard's writing seems stifled by this stylistic departure, and he sounds a good deal less assured than on punchier numbers like 'No Sunlight' and 'Long Division', which bring the band back into familiar form. Thanks to guitarist Chris Walla's elaborate production Narrow Stairs is a rich, varied listen, sounding bright and expansive on rockers like 'Cath...', but atmospheric and layered on 'Bixby Canyon Bridge'. The endless knob-twiddling approach yields one or two rare misfires too though: the sampled tabla loops on 'Pity And Fear' seem superfluous and at odds with the band's sound right up until a big, lumbering guitar riff reminiscent of Radiohead's 'Airbag' reclaims the song. Also breaking the character of the album slightly, 'You Can Do Better Than Me' goes a bit Brian Wilson in its arrangement, only to dissipate before two minutes is up and segue into 'Grapevine Fires', one of the album's clear standouts, presumably taking the California bush fires of last year as its setting. Narrow Stairs sounds like the work of a band who are clearly looking to up their game and meet with the challenges of working on a bigger scale as major label artists, and cleverly, they haven't opted for all-out stadium rock or FM-friendly pop; instead Death Cab have made their music that little bit more ambitious, and they sound refreshed for having done so.