LP Review: Narrow Stairs by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Narrow Stairs
Atlantic; 2008

My Rating: B+ (80/100)

Best Tracks: "Bixby Canyon Bridge", "I Will Possess Your Heart", "Cath", "Grapevine Fires", "Long Division"

Existentially sad bastard music.

TRACK NOTES

"Bixby Canyon Bridge" (4.5/5)

  • Another big change for the band. Signals a pretty significant shift.
  • I think one of the reasons Death Cab is so big is that Ben is a master at communicating his view of reality. This song is a good example of that.

"I Will Possess Your Heart" (4.5/5)

  • Indie band. Fifth album. Time for some kraut-rock.
  • And a good slice it is.

"No Sunlight" (4/5)

  • Now here’s a happy tune!

"Cath" (4.5/5)

  • One of the more memorable tunes.
  • It’s a really meaty rock cut.
  • Nice hushed breakdown on the bridge.

"Talking Bird" (4/5)

  • Very spare and cold. Sort of pitiful in a way that only Ben can pull off.

"You Can Do Better Than Me" (4/5)

  • Big ol’ Beach Boys influence. Would have been right at home on Pet Sounds.

"Grapevine Fires" (5/5)

  • Easily the best track on the album. Amazing song.
  • Lyrically, it feels a bit like the counterpoint to “The New Year.”

"Your New Twin-Sized Bed" (4/5)

"Long Division" (4.5/5)

  • Cool propulsive rocker.

"Pity and Fear" (4/5)

  • Another changeup. Almost feels like techno.
  • Nice abrupt ending out of the fury to scare the crap out of you.

"The Ice Is Getting Thinner" (4/5)

  • Bleak.
  • We are still waiting for Ben to write his "Shiny Happy People."

ALBUM NOTES

  • Stylistically, Narrow Stairs is a huge leap forward for the band. They have largely moved beyond the sound that earned them a massive indie fanbase, incorporating influences ranging from kraut-rock to The Beach Boys.
  • It’s also a satisfying record. There’s not a bad song among the bunch.
  • However, there aren’t any more than a few "great" songs. "Grapevine Fires" certainly is brilliant, but that about ends the list.
  • Allmusic has a good review, but I’d disagree with the writer’s assessment of Plans as an optimistic affair. What?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)

LP Review: Plans by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Plans
Atlantic; 2005

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Soul Meets Body", "Summer Skin", "Different Names for the Same Place", "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"

TRACK NOTES

"Marching Bands of Manhattan" (4/5)

  • Quite a bit poppier from the outset.
  • So are there marching bands in Manhattan that are regularly out and about? Kind of like Treme, but in Greenwich Village?
  • A bit dull, when it all comes down to it. Would have liked a song with a heartbeat to open the album.

"Soul Meets Body" (5/5)

  • Great tune, which the production wasn’t so airy and pure.
  • But still, pretty much a perfect melancholy pop song.

"Summer Skin" (5/5)

  • Amazing feel. The song just hangs there like a big grey cloud.

"Different Names for the Same Place" (5/5)

  • Love this one.
  • Feels like a cloud and rainy afternoon in the city.

"I Will Follow You Into The Dark" (5/5)

  • Good grief, Ben writes some dark love songs.
  • "Last dance with Mary Jane/One more time to kill the pain"
  • Really, great tune, and a changeup for Death Cab.

"Your Heart Is An Empty Room" (4.5/5)

"Someday You Will Be Loved" (4/5)

"Crooked Teeth" (4.5/5)

  • Sounds like The Kinks circa VGPS.
  • Catchy.
  • "No you can’t find nothing at all/If there was nothing there all along"

"What Sarah Said" (4.5/5)

  • "It came to me then/That every plan/Is a tiny prayer to Father Time"
  • Again, depressing (but a little happier than "A Lack of Color!")
  • Very pretty.

"Brothers on a Hotel Bed" (3.5/5)

  • Directionless.

"Stable Song" (4/5)

  • aka "Stability"
  • Beautiful anyway you slice it.
  • Still, it’s a rehash, and feel like this could have been grander, considering that amazing melody. (Even some strings!)

ALBUM NOTES

  • As much as I hate the production on this record, Gibbard is at his peak in terms of songwriting.
  • If Transatlanticism was their Document, then this is their Out of Time (minus their "Shiny Happy People", which will never exist for Death Cab).
  • Why is this a point of departure for a lot of Death Cab fans? Is it the fact that it’s on a major label, or is it something else?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.46/5)

LP Review: The Animal Years by Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter
The Animal Years
V2; 2005

My Rating: A+ (98/100)

Best Tracks: "Girl In The War", "Wolves", "Monster Ballads", "Lillian, Egypt", "Good Man", "In The Dark", "Thin Blue Flame"

Cosmic American Music to make Gram Parsons weep with jealousy.

TRACK NOTES

"Girl In The War" (5/5)

  • "The keys to the kingdom got locked inside the kingdom/And the angels fly around in there but we can’t see them"
  • Chills. So good.

"Wolves" (5/5)

  • This is my all-time favorite Josh Ritter song.
  • What more can I say?

"Monster Ballads" (5/5)

  • This is runner up for all-time favorite Josh Ritter song.
  • "Monster ballads and the stations of the cross" has to be one of the richest lyrical snippets I’ve ever heard. Just brilliant.
  • Good grief, there’s the chills again. You just have to hear this song. So amazing.

"Lillian, Egypt" (5/5)

  • Clever video for this one.
  • Love how he uses Mark Twain’s literary voice here.
  • This is the point where he officially sounded like a pro. Hello Starling was good, but this is galactic.
  • Love the piano solo.

"Idaho" (4/5)

  • Was it a misstep to make this vocals only? I don’t know. I go back and forth. In one sense, it makes for a nice interlude of sorts, esp. with the first four songs being as rich as a Snickers bar fried in chocolate butter.
  • That being said, I’d love to hear the original version, with the acoustic guitar a bit louder. I think it’s a better song than my score here.

"In the Dark" (5/5)

  • "They started looking for you/In the darker caves"

"One More Mouth" (5/5)

  • "All the other moths need light to circle round/You just fly around yourself"

"Good Man" (5/5)

  • Can I give this 6/5? So good.
  • In what evil mirror universe are we living where this song is not standard radio fare?

"Best for the Best" (5/5)

  • Beautiful and understated.

"Thin Blue Flame" (5/5)

  • "Allow me to demonstrate my epic awesomeness," he said.

"Here at the Right Time" (5/5)

  • Love the timbre of the piano on this one.

ALBUM NOTES

  • I’ve already said it here. This one is a classic, hands down, one of the best albums ever.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (5/5)
Songs (4.91/5)

LP Review: Song In The Air by Elliott

Elliott
Song In The Air
Revelation; 2003

My Rating: A- (83/100)

Best Tracks: "Land And Water", "Carry On", "Believe", "Drag Like Pull", "Song in the Air", "Away We Drift"

Next step: evaporate.

TRACK NOTES

"Land And Water" (4.5/5)

  • Very cool sound.
  • Still can’t understand a thing of what he’s saying. That’s his bag though.
  • Great guitar work by Benny Clark.
  • Production sounds PERFECT this time around. Not too hot, not too cold. Just right.

"Carry On" (4.5/5)

  • Pretty melody.
  • Again, nice guitar effects by Benny Clark.
  • Another somewhat Coldplay-ish tune.
  • Well written song. Great arc.

"Believe" (5/5)

  • Here’s an excellent example of the band just sounding more graceful than on False Cathedrals.
  • This is a gorgeous track.
  • The string work is perfect.

"Beijing (Too Many People)" (4/5)

  • You know, this reminds me of The Shipping News’ second album (Very Soon…).
  • Pleasant, but maybe a bit too long?

"Drag Like Pull" (4.5/5)

  • Excellent instrumental.
  • Tight as a snare drum.
  • Bet this one was awesome live.

"Bleed In Breathe Out" (4/5)

  • A bit faceless (?).
  • Still, I like it.
  • Especially dig the part towards the end where Ratterman starts in with a more martial pattern.

"Song In The Air" (4.5/5)

  • Strings, piano, and Higdon’s voice. Just great.
  • A perfect interlude. This really grounds the album. Makes it feel complete.

"Away We Drift" (5/5)

  • Another excellent rocker. This is the band firing on all cylinders.

"Blue Storm" (3.5/5)

  • Not much here. It strikes of filler.

"Genea" (4/5)

  • If that’s not Eno-esque, I don’t know what is.
  • Very cool.

ALBUM NOTES

  • False Cathedrals gets the props, but for my money, Song In The Air is superior. The album nails it in terms of cohesion and concept.
  • Eno might call this “Music for Airlines.”
  • It’s a shame the band decided to call it quits after this, as it is their strongest effort artistically (though I’ll always have a big place in my heart for US Songs). In all reality though, I don’t know what they would have done after this. Get MORE atmospheric perhaps?
  • Few bands have so dramatically transformed in the space of five years. Remember when these guys were writing power pop?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.35/5)

LP Review: Transatlanticism by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
Transatlanticism
Barsuk; 2003

My Rating: A (88/100)

Best Tracks: "The New Year", "Title & Registration", "The Sound of Settling", "Transatlanticism", "Passenger Seat", "We Looked Like Giants"

Emo grande.

TRACK NOTES

"The New Year" (4.5/5)

  • From the beginning, announces a new Death Cab.
  • "So everybody put your best suit or dress on/We’ll make-believe we are happy for just this once/Lighting firecrackers off on the front-lawn/As 30 dialogues bleed into one"
  • The biggest rock song they’ve done. Maybe a little Trail of Dead influence here?
  • Near perfect, but I’ve always felt like it ends a bit abruptly, like an unfinished thought.

"Lightness" (4.5/5)

  • Floats.
  • Beautiful, sleepy melody.
  • "Oh instincts are misleading/You shouldn’t think what you’re feeling/They don’t tell you what you know you should want…”

"Title & Registration" (5/5)

  • Brilliant in every way.
  • Great arrangement. Love the xylophone.

"Expo ’86" (4.5/5)

  • Gibbard does amazing melodies and riffs, but on this album they were overflowing, plain and simple. Case in point. This sounds effortless.

"The Sound of Settling" (5/5)

  • If there was ever a radio-friendly Death Cab tune, this is it.

"Tiny Vessels" (4/5)

  • Nice chiming guitar riff.

"Transatlanticism" (5/5)

  • Epic.

"Passenger Seat" (4.5/5)

  • The talked about Codes & Keys being Eno-esque, but this is maybe the most Eno-esque thing they’ve recorded.
  • A bit of a Lennon thing going on too.
  • Flows really well on the heels of the title track.

"Death of an Interior Decorator" (4/5)

  • Sounds like the early 90’s.

"We Looked Like Giants" (5/5)

  • Huge and feverish.

"A Lack of Color" (4.5/5)

  • Dark and, well, quite frankly, a wee bit depressing.
  • “This is fact not fiction for the first time in years…”

ALBUM NOTES

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Songs (4.5/5)

LP Review: False Cathedrals by Elliott

Elliott
False Cathedrals
Revelation; 2000

My Rating: B (73/100)

Best Tracks: "Calm Americans", "Blessed By Your Own Ghost", "Drive On To Me", "Shallow Like Your Breath", "Superstitions In Travel", "Speed of Film"

In transit-ion.

TRACK NOTES

"Voices"/"Calm Americans" (5/5)

  • Spectacular.
  • Coldplay-ish piano line, but I think they beat Chris Martin and his merry band of hobbits to the punch.
  • Hyper-emo, but in a good way.
  • A technical note: these tracks should be sequenced into 1. It sounds really awkward when you stream it.
  • Lastly: I’m actually not that crazy about this track, a little too melancholy for me, but it’s pretty great in all reality.

"Blessed By Your Own Ghost" (5/5)

  • Pretty.
  • Sorta dreamy.
  • Kinda sounds like "Silent Lucidity", right!?!? "We’ll protect you in the night…"

"Drive On To Me" (4.5/5)

  • Poppy.
  • Is it just me, or does Higdon’s second vocal track sound like Sheryl Crow?
  • Nice tune. Just not sure what "drive on to me" means.

"Calvary Song" (4/5)

  • Here’s one where it would have been good to actually understand Higdon’s vocals.
  • Man, that bass is just right up there in your face.
  • There’s something unique about this cut, but it’s not quite there, you know?

"Lipstick Stigmata" (4/5)

  • I’m not crazy about the recording here, but I’ll bet this one is pretty powerful live.
  • The end of this one almost sounds like late period Endpoint.
  • Not as melancholy as some of the earlier cuts, a bit more like their US Songs tracks.

"Dying Midwestern" (4/5)

  • Nice use of dissonance.
  • There’s those synth effects again.
  • Good grief, just wanna understand the lyrics!!!

"Shallow Like Your Breath" (4.5/5)

  • This one is gorgeous.
  • Nice build to nothing in the middle.
  • Reminds me a bit of "Second Story Skyscraper" in terms of the dramatic arc.

"Superstitions in Travel" (4/5)

  • This is a track that probably could have been a radio hit with production that let it breathe a little more.
  • Dig the use of the acoustic guitar at the beginning, along with the naked drums.
  • Vocals…intelligible…blah blah blah…

"Carving Oswego" (4/5)

  • This one has kind of an 80’s sound. Almost like Heart.
  • I would have loved to get an updated cut of this on Photorecording.

"Lie Close" (3.5/5)

  • This reminds me of early Boy Sets Fire.
  • Yeesh – not too crazy about this one.
  • That last part – "you and I were meant for each other" – that’s kind of cheezy.

"Speed of Film" (4.5/5)

  • This one settles into a nice groove.
  • Also a track that, with a little more time and attention, might have made a bit more of an impact.
  • This one has a very nice melody.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Here’s the deal – some people swear by this album, but for me the production sucks the life out of it. Thankfully, they captured their sound better on Song In The Air and even got superior versions of some of these songs on Photorecording.
  • As problematic as the production is, I have to say that at least these songs can’t really be pigeon-holed into the late-90’s/early-2000’s emo scene. There’s something of the Chicago sound in these tunes, a little bit of Slint-itude if you will.
  • I can remember when this came out, Buddyhead posted perhaps the most hilarious short review of an album in the age of the internet: "This sounds like Bryan Adams." On that note, I bet Elliott would have done a killer cover of "Everything I Do" (which will eternally be a great song due to its cinematic affiliations in the same way as Peter Cetera’s "The Glory of Love"). But I digress…
  • I wonder if this is the first album review that has ever mentioned Slint, Sheryl Crow, and Peter Cetera in reference to the same album?

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.3/5)

LP Review: Hello Starling by Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter
Hello Starling
Signature; 2003

My Rating: B (73/100)

Best Tracks: "Bright Smile", "Kathleen", "You Don’t Make It Easy Babe", "Wings", "Snow Is Gone", "Bone of Song"

The sound of a man singing for the love of it.

TRACK NOTES

"Bright Smile" (4.5/5)

  • Right off the bat, it sounds like another huge leap forward.
  • Soft and beautiful, wistful and innocent.
  • Love that guitar line. It’s a daydream.

"Kathleen" (5/5)

  • Love this song.
  • “All the other girls here are stars/You are the northern lights”
  • However, something has always bothered me about the vocals, like the song should be in a different key to really get Josh’s voice right.
  • Regardless, great stuff.

"You Don’t Make It Easy Babe" (4.5/5)

  • Great song.
  • The live version found on a later EP is fantastic.
  • “Here I am standing at your window again…”

"Man Burning" (4/5)

"Rainslicker" (4/5)

  • Excellent arrangement.
  • This is lazy rainy day music.

"Wings" (4.5/5)

  • Amazing lyrics (one of his trademarks of course).
  • Love it when the piano tones in.

"California" (4/5)

  • "This song goes out to every waiter in Los Angeles."

"Snow Is Gone" (5/5)

  • One of his defining songs. Completely brilliant and joyful.
  • “I’m singing for the love of it/Have mercy on the man who sings to be adored…”
  • “Hello blackbird/Hello starling/Come on over/Be my darling!”

"Bone of Song" (4.5/5)

  • Another quiet and gorgeous song.
  • Love the fiddle playing "Auld Lang Syne" at the end.

"Baby That’s Not All" (4/5)

  • Gorgeous melody.
  • Sweet arrangement.
  • Not an amazing song, but the melody and arrangement carry it a long way.

"Bad Actress" (3.5/5)

  • Remarkably forgettable.
  • I think this one could have been left off to the improvement of the album.
  • After all, it would be pretty good as an outtake.

ALBUM NOTES

  • On Hello Starling, JR still sounds like he hasn’t into his own in terms of his voice and performance, but most of the songs are great nonetheless, and there’s an undeniable warmth and heart to his performances that wins you over.
  • Great lyrics, great melodies. In fact, the lyrics are the best thing about this record.
  • The loveliness, quite simply, abounds. Even some of the lesser known cuts like "Bone of Song", "Rainslicker", and "Baby That’s Not All", though understated, sound as fresh as the country rain.
  • Though he’s taken a turn for the more produced over the last few albums, I’d love to get a stripped down, bluegrass sort of record from Ritter. His melodies are strong enough to carry something like that through.
  • One thing that bothers me about this album is the production. It just sounds uneven (maybe it was supposed to sound live?).
  • Overall, portends of the great things to come.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (4.5/5)
Concept (4/5)
Consequence (4.5/5)
Consistency (4/5)
Songs (4.32/5)

LP Review: Murmur by R.E.M.

R.E.M.
Murmur
IRS; 1983

My Rating: A (92/100)

Best Tracks: "Radio Free Europe", "Laughing", "Talk About the Passion", "Catapult", "Sitting Still"

Not with a bang but a murmur.

TRACK NOTES

"Radio Free Europe" (5/5)

  • One of the best rock and roll tracks ever.
  • One of the great things about this track is the diverse instrumentation that sort of hides in the background.
  • Also, the tempo is fixed from the sloppy 7" version.
  • This is what it feels like to ride a rock and roll wave for a few minutes.
  • Witness.

"Pilgrimmage" (4.5/5)

  • Murky.
  • "Two-headed cow"???
  • Cool use of the vibes in the background.
  • You know, Berry’s drum beat almost sounds techno. Weird.

"Laughing" (5/5)

  • Pretty acoustic work.
  • That’s a gorgeous melody.
  • This is an archetypal Stipe "mumble-core" cut. Does he ever even sing the word "laughing?"

"Talk About the Passion" (5/5)

  • The "other" hit from the album.
  • I love how the music gets all clean at the chorus.
  • Excellent bridge on this one. Sort of psychedelic.

"Moral Kiosk" (4.5/5)

  • OK, now we’ve got some post-punk.
  • Mills’ background vocals on the chorus sound weird.
  • Brilliant bass work by Mills too.

"Perfect Circle" (4.5/5)

  • I think this one really foreshadows the sound of Fables.
  • Pretty piano.

"Catapult" (5/5)

  • "Did we miss anything?"
  • Love the guitar/bass interplay on this song.
  • Marr/Rourke ain’t got nothin’ on Buck/Mills.

"Sitting Still" (5/5)

  • This was the b-side to the "Radio Free Europe" single.
  • It’s one of their brilliant early cuts. Amazing chorus.

"9-9" (4/5)

  • The only "not great" track on the album
  • But it’s still really good post-punk.

"Shaking Through" (5/5)

  • Do Stipe’s lyrics make any sense here? Are they even intelligible?
  • Amazing melody again.
  • Nice fade-back funk piece on the tail-end.

"We Walk" (4.5/5)

  • If nothing else, catchy and fun.
  • Sounds like someone fell when they got up the stairs onto the landing.

"West of the Fields" (4.5/5)

  • Another cool post-punk cut.
  • Maybe not QUITE the closer one would hope for, but still pretty great.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Murmur states the obvious: REM was destined to be a great band. You hear it in Stipe’s soaring and fluid vocal melodies. You feel it in the precision and angularity of Buck’s and Mills’ playing. You find it in the songs, which sound effortless and organic but never overwrought or immodest. These guys were CHANNELING something back in the early 80’s.
  • Murmur cuts against expectations. It definitely rocks, but it’s also muddy and unyielding. For every "Radio Free Europe" you get a "Pilgrimage", for every "Catapult" you get a "Perfect Circle." The record sounds like the kudzu on the cover looks. Both REMs are present here: the rock band that would fill arenas and the artsy troupe that would be the face of the alternative nation. 
  • You won’t find many records from 1983 that don’t sound dated. Murmur goes beyond that though, into the realm of timelessness that only a few bands have ever achieved.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (5/5)
Consistency (4.5/5)
Songs (4.71/5)

Quick Review (LP): The Photo Album by Death Cab For Cutie

Death Cab For Cutie
The Photo Album
Barsuk; 2001

My Rating: B (73/100)

Best Tracks: "A Movie Script Ending", "We Laugh Indoors", "Styrofoam Plates", “Why You’d Want to Live Here”

TRACK NOTES

"Steadier Footing" (3.5/5)

  • The "prelude" approach to opening an album.
  • Pleasant enough. I think it’s filler though.

"A Movie Script Ending" (5/5)

  • "Passing through unconscious states/When I awoke/I was on the highway…"
  • Love that arpeggiated guitar. Lovely.

"We Laugh Indoors" (5/5)

  • Like "Company Calls", this is one of those amazingly paradoxical "lite metal" tracks.
  • It’s like that scene in The Jerk – "He hates these cans!"
  • A really great guitar song. Amazing how they can make things so muddy yet so precise.

"Information Travels Faster" (4/5)

  • Reminds me of their first album.
  • Pretty good. Not their most memorable cut.

"Why You’d Want to Live Here" (4.5/5)

  • Solid melody.
  • It ain’t the feature, but it’s a strong deep cut.

"Blacking Out the Friction" (4.5/5)

  • see "Why You’d Want to Live Here"

"I Was a Kaleidoscope" (4/5)

  • Sounds like the early 90’s! Sort of a Pixies-ish guitar figure.
  • Very poppy.

"Styrofoam Plates" (5/5)

  • One word: BITTER.
  • As difficult as this song is to listen to, it’s a stroke of genius.
  • I just gotta show respect to the talent that Benny G. displays here. Not one of my favorite songs, but unique and brilliant nonetheless.
  • Just try forgetting this one.

"Coney Island" (4/5)

  • "Captain, sensors are detecting signs of Bruce Hornsby."
  • For the record, I love The Way It Is, the whole album.
  • Could’ve been longer. I like the melody.

"Debate Exposes Doubt" (3.5/5)

  • Disappointing closer.

ALBUM NOTES

  • Is Death Cab the first band to think to call an album The Photo Album? Even if they aren’t, I can’t imagine anyone pulling off that concept better. While the opener and closer could have been significantly stronger, everything in between is drunk on that rainy day nostalgia that truly defines the band. It’s not their crowning achievement, but as part three in their "opening trilogy" and the last album of the old school Death Cab sound, it gets the job done and delivers some true classics.
  • And I do wonder why they followed We Have The Facts so closely. Surely a little more space would have let this album fill out a bit more? Couldn’t they have put "Photobooth" on here? Think about that song opening this album and "Stability" closing it. That would have been epic and maybe even classic.

ATTRIBUTES
Cohesion (5/5)
Concept (5/5)
Consequence (3.5/5)
Consistency (3.5/5)
Songs (4.3/5)