Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs 

What can you say about DCFC? When ears beyond Bellingham, Wash., caught on to their sound, they quickly became darlings of the indie world. A string of solid releases on Barsuk Records was enough to solidify their status as the best little band in America.

Then Atlantic Records came calling. No one can blame DCFC for wanting a little financial stability or the chance to cultivate a whole swath of new fans. Mission accomplished.

Unfortunately, their old fans were left waiting at the velvet rope while their new fans—the ones who TiVo The O.C., C.S.I.: Miami and Six Feet Under—got VIP passes to the fabulous world of surgically coiffed pop music. Tragically, history has taught us that bands who sign with major labels often find themselves caving in to the suits who sign their advance checks. As more time passes, their music becomes further diluted, pandering to the lowest common denominator in an attempt to meet sales and revenue targets. As such, logic dictated that Narrow Stairs would be the next step in DCFC's inexorable journey to the middle. Logic, shmogic.

While Narrow Stairs is far from their best work, it represents what appears to be a conscious attempt at retreating from the mid-pointed trajectory Plans had them plotting. Listening to it had me imagining the Atlantic suits at their first listen, most likely dumbstruck, nervous and confused. This is no paint-by-numbers pop album. And while the second act does fall a little flat—at least musically, if not lyrically—there are moments in Narrow Stairs that find Death Cab at their best: exceptional musicianship, complemented by Ben Gibbard's flesh-and-bone lyrics.

In the end, as DCFC stood on the precipice of becoming America's Coldplay, Narrow Stairs may have restored some faith in this little band. The new fans from Plans might find themselves a little confused, but that's fine. Let's just hope, for Death Cab's sake, it's OK with the suits at Atlantic Records, too.

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