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Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs Stevie Chick , May 13th, 2008 00:00

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs

For those of us who came of musical age at the turn of the 1990s, the whole Grunge phenomenon was a somewhat traumatic experience. That fissure between the teeming underground and the mainstream that Nirvana opened closed almost instantly, contracting tighter than even before. In their desperation to snag the ’next Nirvana’, the labels threw wads of green at every scuzz-haired pedal abuser in every rehearsal room in America. Too soon, though, it became clear that only the ’Grunge’ groups with the most ’suburban metal’ sound could truly crossover, that the weird and gnarly and oddball and profound would somehow get clogged in metaphoric sewer grates designed to keep the weird and gnarly and oddball and profound out of shopping malls, and off the radio and MTV.

The triumph of impersonal stadium rock, in the form of groups like Stone Temple Pilots, spelled out to the underground that the mainstream wasn’t a place where they could flourish. Like in Hollywood, it was the grand and simple gesture, writ large and clear enough that a blind deaf quadriplegic could grok your inference, that set cash registers ringing; that sold tickets at the cow-town enormodomes that peopled America. This indie rock stuff, the message seemed to be, could only ever be a niche concern, a hobbyist’s passion; that the idea of bands like Jesus Lizard and Tad and Madder Rose existing as successful major label acts was absurd, that they deserved the often spirit-crushing ignominy of being dumped (twice, in Tad’s particularly sorrowful case).

In the years that followed, the underground seemed to retreat to the fringes, the indie-rockers wary of the avaricious Majors (and that Maximum Rock’n’Roll cover ), and " like Black Flag and the hardcore generation before them " forging a network of tiny labels and sympathetic venues, carving out their own private left-of-the-dial America in rickety splitter vans they rode across the country. Lofty dreams of Nirvana-style stardom seemed forever beyond their reach and, given how that story ended up, were hardly appetising in the first place. Instead, this retreat could be best described by that mainstay of indie-rock interview hell: “We make the music we want to make, and if anybody else likes it, that’s a bonus”.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with Death Cab For Cutie?

You find us in the college town of Bellingham, Washington, 1997, where a young band named for an obscure Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band song from the Beatles’ maligned Magical Mystery Tour movie, have just formed. In the years that will follow, they will record a number of quietly acclaimed albums for local indie label Barsuk, and find themselves on the same touring circuit as kindred spirits like Built To Spill, Modest Mouse and The Dismemberment Plan, groups of similarly earnest but earthbound ambitions. The radiowaves and MTV mostly ignore them, and the noises they make barely resonate over here, except with us sadsack scribes who ever cock an ear across the Atlantic. But someone else is listening, and talking about them, and a buzz is building.

It begins on the internet, newly available to a wide swathe of the world, where listservs and message-boards and nascent blogs chatter about these groups as they wend slowly and scruffily across America. And then, one by one, each had their stroke of outrageous fortune that helped them miraculously ascend to stardom, be it Modest Mouse sound-tracking a TV advert, The Shins enjoying Natalie Portman’s effusive praise in Garden State, or, indeed, Death Cab For Cutie being announced as the fave-rave band of The OC’s geeky heart-throb Seth Cohen. Ah, Seth. All the girls want to be with him, and all the boys want to be him. And, the show’s spinoff sound-track ’mixtapes’ suggested, you could seem that little bit more like sensitive, angsty Seth if you listened to Death Cab. They were perfectly suited to his tastes, after all, their chiming indie-rock subtly orchestrated to emotive crescendos, bespectacled frontman Ben Gibbard’s achingly composed lyrics perfect for scrawling on the cover of a notepad.

And so it was that Death Cab For Cutie snuck into the mainstream, towards a platinum-level of success that’s seen some cynical corners of the press take potshots at them for certain Middle Of The Road tendencies, a certain absence of rock n’roll essence. True, Ben Gibbard is not Iggy Pop, and his band are not the Stooges, and the idea of addled losers like me forking out cash for an exhaustive 7CD box set of the Complete Narrow Stairs Sessions is unlikely to be realised. They are a band of nearly no mystique, of no real public image; if they exist at all, it is in their songs. Indeed, their subtle qualities might be obscured by the extraneous noise of rock legend; better for fans to come across these songs accidentally, on a mixtape or on a messageboard or on The OC, at their own speed, and to just luxuriate in them for a while.

Gibbard, after all, is a man who pens lyrics like they were extracted from novellas of great intrigue and insight, a story teller who writes without flash, but with feeling and a sharp eye for detail. The deftness of their melodies " played out with a drama that fits their peaks and sighs perfectly, but stops well short of clumsy bombast " rewards those with patience, those who appreciate that fireworks aren’t the only way to light up the sky.

Narrow Stairs is Death Cab’s second album since The Big Time came a-knocking, an album they trailed with an eight minute single of a Krautrock countenance, announcing a more experimental approach, something they feel their recent success has earned them. In truth, it sounds very much like most other Death Cab albums, albeit grander in stature, and rougher at the edges (a result of the group ditching their laptops and recording live in the studio); Gibbard himself declares it “no Metal Machine Music.”

But this constancy isn’t noted as a negative. Instead, it’s in admiration of how fresh the Death Cab blueprint sounds, how much new material they glean from similar structures and themes. Swooning melody and epigrammatic wordsmithery infects almost every corner of Narrow Stairs; even on the aforementioned ’I Will Possess Your Heart’, the pulsating bassline and expertly metered drums that announce a rhythm track with some Can in its cold blood never obscure the Tune: deft but dynamic, soundtracking Gibbard’s vignettes with sensitivity.

’Your New Twin Sized Bed’ is a case in point, its tight-focus and sympathetic but unforgiving lyrical eye confirming that Gibbard understands why Raymond Carver’s prose is golden. Musically, the literate and articulate guitars, threading cat’s cradles and hitting angular turns, stake out the space Death Cab seek to inhabit, post-breakthrough: the kind of classic and unabashed collegiate anthems REM once stumbled upon with ease, guileless and large.

There’s a passage in Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag where Henry Rollins notes that his group’s acrid roar offended the audience’s ’REM sensibilities’. But in the American High School Playground that is rock’n’roll, groups like Black Flag and, initially at least, REM were outcasts and outsiders together, the geeks and freaks whose loosely shared subculture rarely crossed over upon that of the jocks and cheerleaders in the mainstream, and in this exile much weird and gnarly and oddball and profound art was hatched. And while there’s not much that’s weird or gnarly or oddball about Death Cab For Cutie, there’s a profundity " or, perhaps, simply a yearning or reaching for profundity, a modest but earnest grasp " to their music that suggests they don’t belong in an arena many of us, in our more cynical moments, write off as ever beholden to the Lowest Common Denominator. But they’ve seeped through somehow, under the radar, riding the long tail, part of that gentle revolution, advancing alongside Modest Mouse, and The Shins, and The Flaming Lips, staking out a visible place for this 21st Century of indie-rock.

Death Cab don’t crawl across the country in a knackered van anymore, but you don’t doubt they’re probably the same guys they were when the group were dubbing off their first demo-cassettes. It’s the same with their music; Narrow Stairs builds on many of the same elements that have concerned the Death Cab catalogue for years. But build it does, ever-refining and growing ever slightly bolder in its reach. They sound less concerned with vaulting the walls of their niche, of compromising or changing what they do, as making a loud enough noise " and making it as honestly, and as passionately as possible " that people will come search them out.

It’s a scheme that certainly seems to be working so far.