Alt-rock success story bounces back. 

Formed in 1997 and official major-label recording artists in 2003, Death Cab for Cutie has experienced general rising success that, for a majority of American bands, must seem as attainable as cheap gas and a van that doesn't break down.

Death Cab leader Ben Gibbard is no rock star — doesn't look like or act like it. But as Death Cab has gotten more popular, Gibbard has made a decided attempt to write anthems that are at least as big as the stage he and his pals now find themselves on. Despite that, Plans, the band's previous album and the major-label debut, felt stubbornly inert and practically vanished on contact.

Narrow Stairs is a different matter altogether: It sports guitars that actually squeal and drums that are pounded in a manner more appropriate for stadiums than coffeehouses. It also has a few songs that are absolute winners.

The album opens with "Bixby Canyon Bridge," Gibbard's ode to Jack Kerouac and his lesser-known novel Big Sur. (Gibbard spent two weeks writing in the same cabin where Kerouac penned Big Sur.) Though "Bixby Canyon Bridge" practically explodes with noise about midway through, Gibbard's relationship to the famous beat writer isn't spelled out enough for the song to take flight. But the melancholy atmosphere that pervades the rest of the album is successfully set.

The eight-minute-and-change "I Will Possess Your Heart" is the tale of a stalker that works much better when cut in half for a radio edit. But just when you think Narrow Stairs is going to settle for decent-not-great, "Cath..." hits like a bolt, pairing Gibbard's sharpest lyrics with an infectious burst of musical energy. The portrait of an uneasy bride ("She holds a smile/Like someone would hold/A crying child") is pitch-perfect. Too bad that "Cath..." is followed by the squishy nonsense of "Talking Bird." "Your New Twin Sized Bed" isn't as electric as "Cath...," but it's a well-observed number with an infectious hook.

Death Cab for Cutie seems to be warming to its new role, and Narrow Stairs certainly offers more bite than Plans. Rock stars rarely get to show off late maturity, but Gibbard has bucked a lot of trends, and he might be ready to buck one more.

— Werner Trieschmann

Grade: B+

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