Death Cab's steady climb

The Baltimore Sun

Had Death Cab for Cutie simply built on the blueprint of Plans, its 2005 mainstream breakthrough, the move would have made sense. After all, the alt-rock band had spent almost a decade toiling in the margins of pop and rock. Then the quartet received mass exposure in 2003 on the teen soap opera The O.C. and signed with Atlantic Records soon afterward. Plans went platinum, and the band garnered a Grammy nomination.

But Death Cab for Cutie doesn't seem changed by the warm embrace it has received from mainstream pop. On its new album -- Narrow Stairs, in stores today -- the band still sounds like an independent unit: restless and explorative. Where the previous album was ultra-bright and gleaming with hopeful lyrics, Narrow Stairs is starker and darker, its arrangements roughened around the edges.

Dissonant layers of guitar and meandering melodies abound. Each of the 11 cuts on the album is like a universe unto itself. The songs' only connecting thread is lyrical melancholia, courtesy of the band's lead vocalist and chief songwriter, Ben Gibbard.

The tunes take a few listens to absorb. Gibbard's vocals are still sweet and swooning. But instead of singing about immortal love, he weaves novelistic, enigmatic tales of heartbreak from interesting perspectives. For instance, "Your New Twin Sized Bed," a swaying highlight, delves into a friend's recent breakup by referencing his purchase of a new bed. Gibbard's concern for the poor guy is contrasted by the summery, almost lilting groove the band locks down behind him. Such juxtapositions -- dark lyrics, bright music -- pepper Narrow Stairs.

"Cath" is about a girl entering a dead-end marriage, who "holds a smile like someone would hold a crying child." Gibbard sings the sad tale over a sun-kissed arrangement. But sometimes, the music echoes the creepy sentiments of the lyrics. "I Will Possess Your Heart" is a stalker anthem in the vein of "Every Breath You Take" by the Police. The strutting bass line and chilly synths in the song's long intro conjure images of fog and shadowy figures.

Nothing on the new CD is as immediate as DCFC's previous hits, namely "Soul Meets Body" and "I Will Follow You Into the Dark."

But that doesn't mean that Narrow Stairs is a bust -- far from it. Glimmering with Radiohead influences here and there, the CD is a haunting exploration of love's darker side. This isn't exactly uncharted terrain, but Death Cab for Cutie's approach is often refreshingly executed and brilliantly detailed.

Also anticipated

Clever pop singer-songwriter Jason Mraz releases his third album, We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things, the follow-up to 2005's ho-hum Mr. A-Z.

After spending the past seven years in and out of jail and dealing with almost losing her hearing, New York rapper Foxy Brown finally releases Brooklyn's Don Diva, the long-delayed follow-up to her fine 2001 gold seller, Broken Silence.

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