Tre’s Tunes: a retrospective on some of my favorite albums (part one of whatever)
Death Cab for Cutie: “Narrow Stairs”
Just under seven years after its release, listening to Death Cab for Cutie’s sixth album is simultaneously a stirring experience (as it’s always been) and a sullen one (a recent development). Narrow Stairs was the last great album from the band’s longest running lineup of Ben Gibbard, Nick Harmer, Jason McGerr and Chris Walla, as the latter amicably parted ways with the band in 2014 to further pursue his own burgeoning career as a producer for other acts. It’s better for all involved if one makes little mention of the album’s 2011 followup Codes and Keys, which, while not a bad album by any stretch, was one of Death Cab’s less memorable efforts.
Narrow Stairs has no such problem. From the opening drone of “Bixby Canyon Bridge” to the fading chord of “The Ice Is Getting Thinner”, the album lures the listener into a 45-minute snare. Walla’s production ramps up the intensity when necessary for hard rock-inspired numbers like “Pity and Fear”, but adjusts to a softer feeling for the album’s milder songs. Throughout each of them, the eternally boyish voice of Gibbard acts as an anchor, tying the sonic diversity on display into a cohesive whole. As a whole, it’s Death Cab at its most contradictory, its boldest, and its most riveting.
While I'd heard their work previously from various sources, Narrow Stairs served as my personal entry into Death Cab’s discography. Disappointed by the lack of a successor to the only album released by Gibbard’s collaborative pet project with Jimmy Tamborello, The Postal Service, I felt compelled to deepen my own knowledge of the sources that made both of the artists famous in their own right.
Doing so led me to stumble upon not one, but two of my all-time favorite albums, with Narrow Stairs being the first.
James Figurine: “Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake”
Jimmy Tamborello probably wouldn’t be the guy to turn to for pop-inspired electronic music; at least, not alone. On his own, he’s made waves in the glitch and experimental music scenes as Dntel, and appropriately enough, the music he releases under the name is highly technical, often cacophonous, and haunting in its beauty. With others, his work is more openly accessible, including his alternative electronic/indie pop collaborations with Ben Gibbard and Jenny Lewis in the aforementioned Postal Service and as a member of the 90's electronic band Figurine with high school buds David Rudolph and Meredith Landman (or, if one prefers, David and Meredith Figurine).
Despite that, his frequently overlooked album from 2006 is an attempt to do just that. The initial response was terse; Pitchfork decried Tamborello for “cutting himself off at the knees” in a not-quite-but-might-as-well-have-been scathing review of Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake that faults the album for not being a Dntel record, despite this being one of its biggest strengths. Tracks like “55566688833" and “All The Way To China” aren’t intended to be sweeping symphonies in the vein of landmark Dntel tracks like “Anywhere Anyone” or “Umbrella”, but they still manage to nail the emotional gravitas of those songs on a smaller scale. The instrumentals on the album support this idea; “White Ducks” is a gripping track despite (or perhaps because of) its relative simplicity.
Perhaps it was the simultaneously human and electronic nature of Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake that drew me in. I’ve always been a sucker for that kind of music, the type that has an identifiable heart despite outwardly appearing robotic.
Luckily the work of the Postal Service and company isn’t the only place that such a quality can be found.
Owl City: “Ocean Eyes”
The work of Adam Young under his Owl City persona is, to put it lightly, polarizing. The hipsters hate it for copying The Postal Service, the electro heads can’t help but gloss over it in their searches for more palpable EDM and the general public isn’t sure what to make of it — except in the case of ‘Fireflies’, an ethereal ditty about Young’s insomnia that, against all odds, zoomed to the top of charts around the world. It’s not hard to see why; the melody’s unspeakably catchy, and the images Young’s esoteric lyrics portray are enduringly youthful.
Even taken out of the context of the hit song it produced, Ocean Eyes is a remarkable record, a frequently strange but charming purée of pop tropes old and new. Lyrics like “The Bird and The Worm’s” ‘we’ll take a long walk
through the cornfield, and I’ll kiss you between the ears’ bring with them dorky smiles, immersing the listener into a weird, wild and wonderful world. It helps that the production is frequently crisp, if not necessarily varied throughout. Five years on, it’s still a delight for the ears.
2009 was, to be frank, a weird year. The apex of my preteen years, at once I was rambunctious and tranquil, thoughtful and tasteless. My musical tastes at the time reflected that — my enjoyment of Owl City and Death Cab satisfied my desire for music that reflected my more composed side.
But sometimes, we all have to be a little rambunctious.
Does It Offend You, Yeah? — You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into
It’d be a task to find a band more self-aware than former five-piece Does It Offend You, Yeah?. Cheekily named after a quote from the Office as delivered by Ricky Gervais, the band put out two albums full of terse, frantic, and satisfying songs before unceremoniously leaving the world wanting with an indefinite hiatus in 2012. The first of these, 2006's You Have No Idea…, was an album meant to be blasted with military-grade subwoofers at a party commemorating the end of the world as we know it, and it shows even without hearing any of it — song titles like Attack of the 60 ft. Lesbian Octopus and Being Bad Feels Pretty Good make DIOYY’s intent clear from the get-go.
It’s how that intent is executed that keeps the listener engaged, however. Beyond the crass exterior lies an album made with a surprising amount of detail; tracks like Lesbian Octopus and Battle Royale shine a light on the band’s electronic chops, while the album’s more introspective tracks like Epic Last Song and Dawn of the Dead clarify DIOYY’s prowess at standard rock. And it’s when those two elements come together (for instance, on the inimitable We Are Rockstars and Let’s Make Out)when the album leaves the most visceral impact.
I suppose I’m done with thinking about these, for now. I’m sure I’ll come up with more.