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CD Reviews:
Listening Room: Death Cab For Cutie, Duffy and more...

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2008

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Death Cab For Cutie, "Narrow Stairs" (Atlantic) ***1/2 stars

As Death Cab For Cutie’s sixth album winds down, frontman Ben Gibbard sings that “we’re not the same, dear, as we used to be.” That could well be the mantra for the quartet from Bellingham, Wash., which has spent its entire career shifting stylistic directions and sonic avenues — almost always, and certainly this time out, to good effect. Unlike the broad soundscape of 2005’s gold-certified “Plans,” which found Death Cab making a smooth transition to the major label world, “Narrow Stairs,” as its title indicates, tightens the tunes but without shrinking the band’s ambitions; if “Plans” was its “Sgt. Pepper’s...,” “Narrow Stairs” is Death Cab’s “Rubber Soul.” “Bixby Canyon Bridge” fades the band into the album with a graceful ambience, gradually building into a full-band attack with a lengthy outro of loud, ringing guitars. The eightplus-minute “I Will Possess Your Heart” then follows with nearly five minutes of instrumental intro before Gibbard starts singing one of the album’s many tales of pining woe and hardscrabble relationship angst (“The idealistic thing I believed/The optimist died inside of me” he sings at another point). The lyrical pain yields musical gain, however, as Death Cab — under the sharp production chops of keyboardist-guitarist Chris Walla -- mines New Wavey templates on “Cath...” and “Long Division,” explores polyrhythmic textures on “Pity and Fear” and pan-African flavors on “Your New Twin Sized Bed,” channels “Pet Sounds”- era Beach Boys, complete with timpani, on “You Can Do Better Then Me,” and finds a melodic high point in the airy “Grapevine Fires.”


Duffy, “Rockferry” (Mercury) ***

Joining the ranks of Amy Winehouse and Leona Lewis, Aimee-Ann Duffy is the latest British neo-soul diva to cross the pond generating plenty of buzz for her sultry stylings and contemporary homages to bygone musical eras. Produced with subtle nuance by former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler, “Rockferry” sounds like the album Dusty Springfield would have made if she’d recorded at Hitsville USA, with a popstyled string-section lushness blending smoothly with her R&B root. “Syrup & Honey” has a bluesier edge, while the uptempo “Mercy,” with its tinny Farfisa organ hook, is vintage girl group fare. The tribal rhythm of “Distant Dreamer” echoes Kate Bush, and the likes of “Warwick Avenue,” “Stepping Stone,” “Serious” and “I’m Scared” are successful modern torch songs that would capsize a lesser voice.


Bryan Adams, “11” (Badman): The Canadian rocker flies like an Eagle [cq] by making his latest available only at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club outlets.

Regina Belle, “Love Forever Shines” Pendulum):

The Grammy-winning R&B singer takes a gospel path on her latest release.

Ryan Cabrera, “The Moon Under the Water” (Frolic Room/Papa Joe): After two major label releases, the singer, songwriter and former Ashlee Simpson boyfriend returns to the independent ranks for his fourth album.

Joe Cocker, “Hymn For My Soul” (Fantasy): The veteran song stylist covers Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, George Harrison and John Fogerty on an album that came out last year in his native U.K.

Dokken, “Lightning Strikes Again” (Rhino): The hard rock quartet again looks to rekindle its ‘80s success with its first new material since 2004.

Emmanuel Jal, “Warchild” (Sonic360/ Fontana/Universal): The Sudanese child soldier turned rapper chronicles his experiences on an album that joins an autobiography and a documentary about his life.

Filter, “Anthems For the Damned” (Pulse): Richard Patrick reactivates his band after a dalliance with Stone Temple Pilots’ DeLeo brothers in Army of Anyone.

Jools Holland, “Best of Friends” (Rhino): The former Squeeze keyboardist and British TV host gathers collaborations with Eric Clapton, the late George Harrison, KT Tunstall, U2 frontman Bono and others.

Kidz in the Hall, “The In Crowd” (Duck Down): The Ivy League (Penn) hip-hop duo’s sophomore outing features guest collaborations with Talib Kweli, Bun B, the Clipse, Gym Class Heroes and Detroit’s Guilty Simpson.

Local H, “12 Angry Months” (Shout! Factory):

The power rockers from Zion, Ill., deliver their first new music since 2004.

Jazon Mraz, “We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.” (Atlantic): The witty troubadour sings with James Morrison and Colbie Caillat on his first set of new material in nearly three years.

Ted Nugent, “Sweden Rocks” (Eagle Rock): The Motor City Madman is captured live in 2007, delivering a set of his greatest hits.

Old 97’s, “Blame it on Gravity” (New West): The Americana rockers return to active duty with their first new studio album in four years.

Kelly Richey, “Carry the Light” (Sweet Lucy): The Kentucky singer, songwriter and guitarist cites Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen as inspirations on her 11th release.

Skybombers, “Take Me to Town” (Albert Productions): The debut album from the just out of high school Australian rock quartet.

The Stairwell Sisters, “Get Off Your Money” (Yodel-Ay-Hee): The San Francisco quintet enlisted Lloyd Maines, father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie, to produce its debut album.

The Submarines, “Honeysuckle Weeks” (Nettwerk): Unlike on its 2006 debut, the electro-pop duo from East L.A. worked together from start to finish on it sophomore outing.

10 Years, “Division” (Universal): The Tennessee headbangers’ fourth album, and first in three years, features a songwriting collaboration with Stone Temple Pilots’ Dean DeLeo on the track “Focus.”

The T4 Project, “The T4 Project: Story-Based Concept Album” (Mental): Members of Pennywise, Bad Religion, the Buzzcocks, the Damned and more take part in this punk-flavored rock opera.

We Are Scientists, “Brain Thrust Mastery” (Astralwerks): The sophomore album from the California duo that met while watching “Dawson’s Creek” in a dorm room at Pomona College in Claremont.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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