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The Most Interesting Bands to See This Summer

8th June

kc89pic.jpg

The summer touring season is upon us, and while the dull and faint of heart are once again lured to the same old Dave Matthews Band and Pearl Jam shows (Jesus, people, can the pot really be THAT good?), we thought we’d introduce you to a tentative “top ten” (er, um, eleven) list of the most interesting bands on tour this summer. We’d like to think we’re turning you on to some bands you’ve never heard of here, but we know you’re way cooler than that. So here it is, for what it’s worth:

Voodoo Glow Skulls: These guys are completely ridiculous, but ridiculous in a kind of once-in-a-lifetime spectacle sort of way. You know, the way you just HAVE to go see Dick Valentine scream about taking you to a gay bar one more time. It’s not quite “Rock ‘N Roll McDonald’s,” but it’s close enough. The Glow Skulls are what might happen if the Squirrel Nut Zippers took Dave Navarro to a polka party hosted by Everlast. Yes–seriously. They’re currently touring in support of their new LP, Southern California Street Music, featuring the single “Fire in the Dancehall” (Speaking of Dick Valtnine, he oughtta sue.) Find their tour dates here.

Colour Revolt: We’ve finally figured out the recipe for Colour Revolt: one part Modest Mouse, one part The Walkmen, one part Sparklehorse, and one part whatever the fuck you want–yields endless servings. These guys are quite possibly the most schizophrenic band on the scene right now. Just when you think you’ve got them tagged as another whiney whispering Emo outfit with tracks like “A New Family” or “Mattresses Underwater”, they transform into an offshoot of Sparta with a gritty and raw rock-out like “Circus.” They’re touring in support of their first LP, Plunder, Beg and Curse on the revered Fat Possum label; and a stream of their debut, eponymous EP is available on their website. Check out tour dates here, where you can also hear tracks from the new LP (we especially recommend “A Siren” and “Naked and Red“.)

Skulls
Voodoo Glow Skulls

Death Cab For Cutie: Meh. You know. Tour dates here.

Young Knives: Excellent indie pop that’s not afraid to show a fang now and then with tougher tracks like “Up All Night“–a kind of exceedingly English Hot Hot Heat–but only kind of. Speaking of which, this is perhaps the most shamelessly English group since Syd Barrett was cutting tracks like “Astronomy Domine” with Pink Floyd–“Knives” is British for “Knaves,” for instance, which is exactly how they got their band name. These tweed-clad Brits made a rather auspicious entry onto the scene by declaring themselves “Dead” on their debut EP, The Young Knives . . . Are Dead. But they’re not, you see. Last year they were nominated for the really important-sounding “Nationwide Mercury Prize,” and now they’re giving geek rock a good name with their strong new LP Superabundance, which they’re currently supporting with a series of summer gigs. Check out dates here, where you can also catch a streaming audio of their new album.

Vampire Weekend: Right. Them. Tour dates here.

Sleepercar: More excellent indie pop but with a vague hankering for country. But don’t let that bullshit fool you–these guys are the side project of Jim Ward (of Sparta and At The Drive-In fame), even though they put out albums called West Texas, a title that’s about as instructive of the band’s creative origins as a White Stripes album called “Nashville” would be. And while Ward and the boys pull off the whole alt-country thing as convincingly as an Uncle Tupelo album, it’s in their departures from that sound, as on the blistering “Sound the Alarm,” that things really start to get interesting. Tour dates here. And check out their video for “A Broken Promise“–good stuff!

 

Young Knives
Young Knives

MGMT: We fucking LOVE these guys. If you want to know why, then check out the story we did about them a while back. Or just go to their myspace page, where you can get tour dates AND hear how cool they are. Wow.

The Boxing Lesson: As we said in our recent review of The Boxing Lesson’s Wild Streaks and Windy Days, these guys confirm that to label a band is to kill a band. It is too easy to dismiss The Boxing Lesson as a post-punk new wave act and move blithely on to your next victim. But as Whoopsy Magazine puts it, “there’s a lot more going on here . . . catchy backing vocals, surreal lyrics, and a modern pop sensibility stand out the most.” But The Boxing Lesson aren’t just another upstart “indie” band pushing the praise of rags called “Whoopsy.” The Onion calls them “a hard-charging trio,” and The Austin Chronicle praises them for “opening a Pandora’s box of psychedelia.” Check out tour dates at their myspace page.

Detroit Cobras: If you don’t already know about these people, then it’s about god-damned time. This is balls-to-the-wall, no frills garage rock of the highest order–with a penchant for delicious covers of songs so old you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to them otherwise. It’s brought to you by the sexiest voice rock ‘n roll has heard in decades–the incomparable Rachel Nagy–whose vocals will slap a sloppy lipstick kiss across your face, smack your ass raw and call you queer. And you’ll LIKE it, too. Tour dates.

Raconteurs: As depressing, boring and unnecessary as their debut may have been (and it was), their new LP actually has us believing there’s a reason for their existence–no easy task given our loathsome indifference to the crap they served up the first time around. Check out our recent review of their new album here, and, while you’re at it, get a load of their summer tour dates.

Hiatt Live
John Hiatt

John Hiatt: So maybe he’s old enough to be your dad, but after sitting through one of his shows, you’ll also understand that he’ll kick the shit out of your dad, too. This guy doesn’t fuck around. Check out our review of his new album, Same Old Man. And see tour dates here.

“Sellout”: In Defense of Tom Petty

6th June


Petty T-Shirt

Image of a Tom Petty T-Shirt, Courtesy of Vintage T-Shirt Store

“I’ve already passed on so much money I don’t worry about it anymore.”
— Tom Petty

We’ve all been there at one time or another: the local artsy coffee joint where the proprietors gather signatures for petitions to legalize hemp, serve organic soy-milk cappuccinos in “Friends Don’t Let Friends go to Starbucks” mugs, and house “open mike” events where, as Leonard Cohen puts it in a song, “all the lousy little poets come around trying to sound like Charlie Manson” as an audience of six-and-a-half timidly munch on a feast of macrobiotic brownies. It’s where the pseudo-punks come to be seen with their hair carefully greased into a towering cascade of freshly shaped spikes, and you wonder how many hours they spent studying themselves in the mirror to appear so carefully disheveled as they curl up with their lattes and laptops and still, somehow, count themselves among the countercultural (without even the vaguest sense of irony.) I can’t help the feeling that, if he were still around, Joey Ramone would also see something just a bit mutually exclusive between punk rock and wifi connections.

There’s something else that the indie coffee joint houses: impassioned popularity contests in which a gaggle of 17-year-olds demonstrate the magnitude of their hipness by declaring profound affection for as many obscure bands as they can name–usually with as much conviction as they can muster, however insincere the whole spectacle may be. Back when I spent many nights a week at one of these places because it was just up the block from my apartment, the “in” bands to name-drop were acts like Deadboy & The Elephant Men, Apples in the Stereo, and Death Cab For Cutie (before your mother listened to them.)


Tom Petty: “Something in the Air”
(Check out Ringo on drums at 0:49)

I guess you can call it a cultural revolving door, whereby you rebel against one culture by conforming to another–and these gatherings of indie hipsters, pseudo-punks and the disciples of Emo Nation happily clamor along in a desperate search for identity at an age when, more often than not, you figure out who you are by figuring out who others want you to be.

Though the courage to be ourselves tends to come later, it doesn’t come to everyone–when you think about it, actually, it hardly comes to any of us. I know I’m no priest of pure authenticity–are you? The point is that, in those rare moments when we permit the discomfort of total honesty with ourselves, we realize that we’re all sellouts in one way or another, each and every one of us, and that this is a totally unavoidable circumstance of human nature.

As Daphne Carr so astutely points out in a great LA Weekly piece on Tom Petty, this is exactly the reason why the fictional “Eddie” in Tom Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” busts into a tattoo shop in L.A. to acquire his own insignia of rebellion, “only to find a girl ‘with a tattoo too'” (a brilliant piece of word play, the more I think about it.) It’s natural to wonder why all the rebells before you look the same as you peak over your book in that hip cafe tonight, but if you think you yourself have never been among them–one of the many crestfallen Eddies in the middle of an L.A. tattoo parlor trying to get a clue–you’re lying to yourself.


Tom Petty: “Any sort of injustice just outraged me.”

The presumption behind the scene described above appears to be this: You’re either an indie rock hipster or an establishment tool, a comprehensive rebuke of any conceivable gray area that reminds me of Dubya’s “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” creed. It’s the same ethic that caused a friend of mine who introduced me to some of the greatest indie bands I’ve ever heard to scoff disdainfully the minute I indulged a craving for–GASP!–Tom Petty in his presence.

Though a minor share of guilt has accompanied my moments with the music of Tom Petty ever since, it’s a pleasure I pursue without shame to this day. Why? Well, it’s like Jessica Grabert wrote in a piece for Blend Music recently: “juxtaposing Tom Petty’s voice with Mike Campbell’s guitar rifts is like having sex between Egyptian cotton sheets—it may not be the most technically astounding collaboration, but it sure fucking feels good.” It’s not possible to put it any better than that; and anyway, all the guilt in the world wouldn’t do a thing to temper my belief that, contrary to the now-revered indie label’s name, we don’t always have to “Kill Rock Stars.” Well, not all of them, anyway.

Petty

It’s easy to overlook the human being in a guy when he takes the laser-lit stage of a half time show at the Super Bowl as a crowd of young people–desperate to be looked at and wholly indifferent the music of Tom Petty–crowd around to perform their most sincere fits of adoration before a glittering frenzy of TV cameras. And it’s just as easy for those kids at the cafe–or my indie-rockin’ friend–to spew chants of “sellout” on their way to another laptop-‘n latte love-in with their cadre of poster punks and Emo clowns, all of them desperate to belong by pretending that they couldn’t care less about belonging anywhere at all–no, honest they don’t. I swear!

Petty, notorious for a longstanding anti-corporate bias that has brought upon numerous lawsuits and a mysterious blaze at his house ignited by a still-unidentified arsonist, took a lot of heat for appearing at the Super Bowl this year, an event sponsored by Bridgestone Tires, which hires children at a Liberian factory where the environment is destroyed and workers’ rights are non-existent. For many it was an easy excuse to pan Petty as a “sellout.” But those who would do so–like those kids in search of themselves at the cafe around the corner–unfairly dismiss one of the greatest stories rock ‘n roll has to tell.


Tom Petty: “Swingin’,” Echo (1999)

Growing up as poor as a stray dog in Gainesville, FL, Petty traded in his slingshot for a stack of Elvis LPs after a personal encounter with Presley that left him star-struck in awe, and later defied his deeply abusive father, who berated him severely for being “a mild-mannered kid who was interested in the arts” (read “queer”), by “driving up in a van full of Florida stoners onto Sunset Boulevard in 1974, cruising for labels“–a 3,000 mile road trip from his Florida hometown. It was only after Petty struck it rich, of course, that his Dad–by most accounts an outright monster–suddenly embraced the rock ‘n roll he claimed to despise for so many years, “which really sort of insulted me,” petty explains in a scene from Peter Bogdanovich’s fascinating documentary about the band, 2007’s Runnin’ Down A Dream.

It’s no wonder Petty found it insulting that his father, a man who swung with closed fists at his mother and offered much of the same to his brother Bruce whenever he tried to come bewteen Tom and the latest ass-whoopin’ his father had to hand down, suddenly found the entirety of his ego invested in his son’s success. “He was just crazy,” Tom explains in the film, “he would give me pretty good beatings most of my life . . . the house could erupt into a fist fight” at any moment.

In a particularly stirring connection, the film establishes a long line of rock legends who, like Petty, either lost their mothers young or had abusive fathers. It really is amazing how many have been treated to one or both of those pleasantries–Bono, Larry Mullen, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Madonna, Aretha Franklin, Sinead O’Connor–you name them, they’ve dealt with it. As someone says of Petty in the film, “You don’t get to where he got to from where he started out unless you have something to prove to somebody who’s not listening to you.”


Tom Petty & Playboy Records

This tragic combo of a lost mother and monstrous father is the peculiar fuel that both filled Petty with an irate drive for success–“I just turned my anger into ambition,” he says–as well as a disdain for the compromises that ambition requires. We’re talking about the guy who turned down his friend Stevie Nicks’s request to join the band because “there are no girls in the Heartbreakers,” who took his own label to court when they sold out to MCA and tried to dump him in their lap without his consent, then sued his new label for upping the price of his then-upcoming album Hard Promises by applying a $1 “Superstar Pricing” hike, as the company called it–exactly the reason you saw petty tearing a dollar bill in half on the cover of Rolling Stone back then.

Even Petty’s got to get a chuckle out of the irony that it’s a tire company his critics now point to in defense of their case against him as a “sellout.” It was, after all, another tire company (B.F. Goodrich) that he sued in 1987 for using a song that sounded conspicuously like Petty’s “Mary’s New Car” in a commercial–especially “conspicuous” since Petty had just taken a request from the company to use the song and asked them to kindly shove it up their asses. The case was “settled out of court.” In other words, the bastards paid up and shut up.

And if an artist’s relevance is measured by how many bands try to steal his shit, then Petty’s pretty fucking relevant. By now it’s not exactly news that The Red Hot Chili Peppers–on an album that captured the sound of a band totally out of ideas–pilfered the groove to “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for their derivative hit “Dani California.” The Strokes, who were described playing Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” with Ryan Adams during a Rolling Stone interview a few years back, admitted borrowing from “American Girl” for their hit “Last Nite.”


Tom Petty Covering “Asshole” by Beck

“That made me laugh out loud,” Petty says, “I was like, ‘OK, good for you.’ If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I’d sue]. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.” In other words, he’s too old and rich to give a shit. But it’s worth keeping in mind, next time you think about sneering at a buddy who deigns to hold you hostage to a Petty tune, that he may be old and rich, but he’s got a hell of a story to tell, and was defending artistic integrity when all the younger bands you want to name were crawling their cribs in diapers.

Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.

Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs

5th May

Death Cab

“To be blunt, Narrow Stairs represents another bold attempt as the band continues to embrace the idea that their own smarmy drama pop should be less abrasive and grander on a scale both lyrically and instrumentally” — Michael Roffman of Consequence of Sound

With a new video out that’s about as inspiring as a night of bingo at the local Moose Lodge–our first glimpse of the follow-up to an album that some derided as the sell-out of the century–the light shines a bit uncertainly on all things Death Cab these days. The single, polished to a glossy sheen and boasting a typically ham-handed title of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” plays like an outtake that Coldplay recorded at gunpoint and burned before skipping town in a borrowed Mini, its muted guitars kept vaguely afloat by sputtering percussion as chintzy bursts of piano pepper the tune with more than a modest share of corn. Ben Gibbard tops things off with such revelatory turns as “You’ve gotta spend some time with me / I know that you’ll find love / I will possess your heart.” Pretty deep, dude. You’re killin’ me over here.

Thankfully for Death Cab fans, the album actually does get better from there–but only occasionally. And yet that’s exactly the kind of experience that most Death Cab albums deliver. “It’s comforting to know what you’re getting,” Pitchfork said of Plans, “Four or five songs you’ll treasure, four or five you’ll tolerate, and a pretty good band sticking to their guns.” This time around, though, the treasures are not so easily discovered–though there are treasures–and there’s plenty to merely tolerate. But if it’s the treasures we have to work harder to get to that we truly prize, then perhaps Narrow Stairs is on to something, delivering for perhaps the first time in the band’s career songs that are neither immediately gripping nor quickly dismissed, but rather material you need to listen to four times over before it starts to sink in like a challenging poem.

It’s both unsurprising and worrisome that Atlantic, the major label to which Death Cab signed in 2004 after a string of genuinely stirring records with indie label Barsuk, is describing their latest release as “their most daring and adventurous album to date.” Let me decode those pleasantries for you: “dude, we’ve listened to the album 30 times now, and we still have no idea what we’ve just heard nor how to market it. Let’s just call it ‘daring’ and head for the hills while we’re still in the black.” When a major label’s PR people characterize new records as “mature,” “adventurous” or “honest,” it’s usually code for “boring” or “Oh shit, we’re screwed.” So they call it “adventurous” to heighten the suspense, conning you into coughing up your gas money for an album that turns out to be a lot less interesting than they led you to believe.

Some of us who listened to Death Cab For Cutie albums before the radio told everyone else to do the same lamented the predictable excess of watered-down ballads their major label debut served up, a self-conscious “now we need to sound like the band they signed” paranoia that provoked the most claustrophobic production job of Chris Walla’s career, exchanging the bite of The Photo Album for the blather of Plans, the hard nose of “That’s Incentive” for the glass jaw of “Someday You Will Be Loved.” “It would be nice if a band reaching for a larger audience had a sound that matched that sense of ambition,” Pitchfork complained at the time.

As song after song on Narrow Stairs demonstrates, the boys heard the criticism, and they’re fighting back with mixed success. Though the album indulges some of the same water balloons and vapor the band packed into Plans, its more rewarding moments unleash a brazenness they haven’t displayed since Gibbard put out a cassette called You Can Play These Songs With Chords. “I hope this album is a bit of a surprise for those out there that think they have us all figured out,” Cab bassist Nick Harmer boasts. That’s fine, but the gripes that greeted their Atlantic debut a few years back were born not of boredom, but of affection for the band that Harmer & Friends left behind at Barsuk. Long before they turned to the ballads-by-the-numbers formula of Plans, they brewed organic indie-pop collections that sported as many teeth as tears, an occasional crunch of snotty guitar intruding to toughen the tempo. Plans, by contrast, sounded too much like a stump speech for President of Emo-Nation than a Death Cab album, drenched in the weepy whispers and atmospherics that give emo a bad name.

Confronting the confines of a major label’s conservative vision this time around, they depart more dramatically than ever from the band we knew just four years ago, with its 8-minute singles (“I Will Possess Your Heart”) and African drums (“Pity and Fear“). The frenetic “No Sunlight” exhibits an unfocused and discordant contrivance of noise that underscores the self-conscious anxiety of a band burdened by the pressures of the big time, while Gibbard sings as if someone’s waving a lit match under his ass as his voice strains to catch up to its own whimsical flights on “Cath” (a song that’s given a remarkably more moving acoustic makeover here.) “It’s a ballsy, brave effort,” James Montgomery opines at mtv.com (there we go with the code words again), “sonically every bit as dissonant and sanguine as you have heard . . . tunes that display muscle and bravado.” All true, as it turns out; but the results, while thrilling at times, are far more uneven than the band’s establishment apologists would have you believe.

Narrow Stairs Cover

Something almost engaging happens on the admittedly charming “”You Can Do Better Than Me,” a clamor of Christmas bells and organ carrying the song to destinations no Death Cab album’s gone before. And the sonically massive “Pity and Fear,” for all its theatrics and distortion, features one of the grittiest vocal performances of Gibbard’s career, the edges of his fragile croon roughened by a morbid and memorable attitude. This is clearly not the Death Cab For Cutie you listened to in high school. We can cue the usual cliches here about maturity and evolution, but whether we want to buy into the story Atlantic is selling or work with the album on our own terms, ultimately Narrow Stairs is a conflicted–if beautiful–document of divergent creative paths. Familiar shades of Plans flicker amid the flames of a visionary angst that that album hardly even sniffed, and the band seems invested enough in those newer horizons to dig up more where that came from next time around. In the aftermath of such historic transformations as bands like Wilco and Radiohead have undergone, Narrow Stairs suggests that we may be witnessing another musical metamorphosis in the making–one with the rare potential to break its own ground.