Narrow Stairs, Wide Open Minds
Death Cab and Firewater Broaden Their Horizons

According to, Death Cab for Cutie’s Narrow Stairs is on track to debut at number one next week. So I guess it’s time to stop pretending they’re a scrappy little indie band.

God knows the band has moved on from its lo-fi days on Barsuk Records. Back then, they soared on sweet melodies and Ben Gibbard’s pure-as-the-driven-snow voice, and they needed little else. Their albums were never toiled over, but sounded effortless… and, I must say, kind of cute. They were the sweetest, most poetic band of the 1990s with the word “death” in their name.

They were also on a steady climb towards greatness, and they achieved it in 2005 with Plans, their Atlantic Records debut. This isn’t to dismiss their previous efforts, particularly the ambitious Transatlanticism, but everything clicked on Plans. It was an album-length meditation on growing old and dying, and on what we cling to and what we leave behind.

It was also heart-rendingly gorgeous, and deceptively small – one of the album’s best moments, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” contained nothing but Gibbard’s voice and guitar. And it could make a grown man weep. (Not that I know first-hand or anything…) Even the bigger moments, like the epic “What Sarah Said,” concentrated on small points in time – in that case, the chilling moments before death, from the point of view of a friend stuck in the hospital waiting room.

By now, most of you have heard “I Will Possess Your Heart,” the eight-and-a-half-minute first single from Narrow Stairs, and you know not to expect Plans II. “Heart” is, at its core, a very simple song about stalking, but it’s preceded by nearly five minutes of repetitive, bass-driven instrumental buildup, a striking artistic excess for a band whose middle name has always been restraint. It’s a song that wouldn’t fit on any of Death Cab’s previous albums.

And oddly enough, it doesn’t fit on this one either. But then, none of the songs fit together, or at least, not nearly as well as Plans might lead you to expect. Narrow Stairs isn’t an album-length statement, it’s 11 unrelated songs sequenced next to each other, often uncomfortably. It’s a record for the iTunes age – each song is exquisitely crafted, using oodles of that major label money, so that whichever one the casual listener decides to download, he’ll get a complete experience. But none of the songs sound anything like one another, and as an album, it suffers from attention deficit disorder.

The first time through, Narrow Stairs is a jarring listen. But give it time, and it will sink in. These may be 11 unrelated songs, but they are 11 of the best unrelated songs Gibbard and company have ever written. And the physical sound of this album is unlike anything they’ve ever done – just the first song, “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” sports half a dozen sounds never heard on a Death Cab album before, from the Jonny Greenwood guitars in the opening moments to the explosive static near the end. In five minutes, it jumps from a sweet 6/8 ballad to a staccato rocker, to a furious instrumental workout, to white noise, to a sweet coda.

The album never gets quite that adventurous again, but for its 44-minute running time, it flits back and forth between old-school melodic pop and fascinating sonic experiments. “I Will Possess Your Heart,” obviously, belongs to the second category, and it’s equal parts maddening and mesmerizing. (When Gibbard sings “You’ve got to spend some time with me,” I always want to reply, “What do you think I’ve been doing for the last five and a half minutes?”) To counter that, the band sequenced two catchy, classic Death Cab tunes right after it – “No Sunlight” is delightful, perhaps the happiest song about losing one’s ideals I’ve heard, and “Cath…” is among the band’s finest straight-ahead pop songs.

The first half of the album is schizophrenic, but once you’re past the orchestrated interlude “You Can Do Better Than Me,” it takes flight – the second half is practically flawless. Gibbard is in fine lyrical form on “Grapevine Fires,” a beautiful electric piano ballad about watching your life burn. He sticks with some pretty thin metaphors on this album, especially on “Your New Twin-Sized Bed,” but that song is so sweet that it hardly matters. It’s the only one here that would have fit nicely on Plans, and guitarist Chris Walla (who has produced every Death Cab album to date) lays down some snaky lines and then stays out of the way.

My favorite here is “Long Division,” which kicks off with an almost Krautrock beat and some slippery bass, but then evolves into the most hummable chorus on the record. The metaphor here is strong as well – “He’d sworn not to be what he’d been before, to be the remainder…” It’s fascinating, though, that just as Death Cab has made its most complex and musically rewarding album, Gibbard has resorted to his most on-the-nose lyrics, needing almost no interpretation.

“Pity and Fear” takes the band’s sound to its farthest-out place, slipping in some exotic percussion and an almost Eastern melody, and its final minutes rock harder than anything else in Death Cab’s catalog. As if to counterbalance that, they conclude this strange and wonderful album with “The Ice is Getting Thinner,” a simple, sad song floating on Gibbard’s voice and a brittle electric guitar, and nothing else. It’s the mark of a band that doesn’t know quite where they want to go next, so they’ve chosen to go everywhere.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But while Narrow Stairs is leagues beyond Plans musically, and Chris Walla has turned in his finest production work to date, the album just doesn’t carry the emotional weight of its predecessor. It’s like a collection of short stories rather than a novel, and while each story is satisfying, the book as a whole feels like a grab bag.

Of course, that all boils down to this: all the songs on Narrow Stairs are terrific. Gibbard, Walla and company strike out for undiscovered countries more than once here, and it’s impressive how little of this album sounds like Death Cab for Cutie to these ears. And yet, there’s that indefinable element, that signature stamp – all of this album sounds like Death Cab for Cutie somehow. This is Death Cab choosing a new direction by choosing 11 of them, but as superb as this story collection is, I’m looking forward to digging into their next novel.

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Sometimes, I listen to CDs on my own schedule. And sometimes, those CDs take over my stereo system, blocking out all else as my obsession with them plays out. I’m in the middle of an obsession with The Golden Hour, the new album from Firewater.

As a journalist, I always like it when my subjects provide me with a hook to hang a story on. The Golden Hour has a monster hook, and here it is. Firewater is Tod Ashley, who goes by Tod A. He used to be in a great melodic-industrial band called Cop Shoot Cop, but for the past 13 years, he’s been exploring the one-world-music philosophy under his new name. Over five previous albums, Firewater brought together disparate musical forms under one umbrella – jazz, klezmer, gypsy, Eastern music, anything you could think of.

But for all that time, Ashley had been bringing those musical cultures to him in the good ol’ U.S.A. For The Golden Hour, he went to them – he spent three years traveling Israel, India, Pakistan and Turkey, working with local musicians. And when I say working, I don’t mean he assembled bands in each country and jammed. I mean he found local musicians and recorded their parts on his laptop, then edited them all together into a cohesive whole.

There are a number of interesting effects of this working method. For one, it means that musicians from countries that hate each other will find their musical contributions sitting next to each other on the same song. It’s not uncommon here for an Indian percussionist and a Pakistani guitarist to play on the same tune, having never met one another. It’s the one-world-music philosophy at its finest.

For another, though, it means these songs do not ape the musical traditions of the countries Ashley visited. The songs on The Golden Hour blend everything together, and then build a rock record out of the resulting mixture. Take “This Is My Life,” one of my favorites – the instrumentation here includes a tumba, a chimta, a dholki, a harmonium and something called “cannibal drums,” but man, the whole thing just rocks. It’s a song Cop Shoot Cop could have done, with electronic beats and heavy guitars, but the high stringed instruments and furious percussion sound somehow heavier.

The whole album is like this. I can’t even pick out single styles – there’s some reggae, some jazz, some Middle Eastern flavors, some surf guitar, some ramshackle organ, a few horn sections, some dancehall drum loops, and on and on. Holding it together is Ashley’s rough and tumble voice, always in English, always sounding somewhat disgusted with what he sees going on around him. Ashley has said he originally left America because he was sick of looking at George W. Bush’s face, and the lyrics here certainly bear him out – it’s like hearing representatives from five countries come together to flip off the White House.

“Hey Clown” is the most obvious example. “These are the worst times that I ever knew, and all my troubles are because of you,” Ashley spits over a carnival-esque background, before threatening to “put you in the ground” and “piss on your parade.” (The only thing keeping him from being arrested here is that he doesn’t mention Bush by name.) It’s the angriest piece here, but elsewhere, Ashley inhabits characters searching the world for kindness, and a place to call home.

Mostly, though, The Golden Hour is about Ashley’s trip halfway around the world, and the emotions it stirred up. “Borneo” is a song about stepping away, a perfect kickoff to this album, and the concluding trilogy is about returning. “Weird to Be Back” is exactly what it sounds like, and the finale, “Three Legged Dog,” includes the lines, “I’m still looking for that something to make my life complete.” Ashley left restless and angry, and he returned the same way, although he’s full of new insights. “A Place Not So Unkind” is the album’s emotional center, Ashley’s observations sympathetic and crystalline: “Faces melting like wax in the heat, people dying like dogs in the street, and love is a word in the sand that a wave wipes away with her hand…”

The Golden Hour is Tod Ashley’s masterpiece, and one of the finest proofs I’ve ever heard that all music is one music. It’s also one of the best albums of 2008 so far, and it still hasn’t released its hold on my CD player – whenever I’m not reviewing something new, this album finds its way back into rotation. It’s addictive, fascinating, brilliant, and joyfully pissed off, but above all, it flat-out rocks. Here, try it for yourself. Start with “This Is My Life,” and go from there.

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Next week, King’s X, and the last of Peter Davison’s Doctor Who stories.

See you in line Tuesday morning.