Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2008


I'm going to give myself a little bit of a break after the last couple of years. I know for sure what my album of the year is, so I'm only going to talk about two runners up.

By 2008, I was slightly ahead of the curve and had both a Myspace and a Facebook. My introduction to Eric Hutchinson has to be the weirdest way I've ever found a band or musician: through a Facebook ad. I don't know why I clicked, I guess I must have just liked the cut of his jib. All I know is that a few seconds later, I was listening to "Rock and Roll" off of Hutchinson's Sounds Like This. I was hooked. He has a great flow to his lyrics, and a voice much stronger than you would expect. If I had to describe his sound from "Rock and Roll" back in 2008, I would probably have said that he was a more rock Jason Mraz. I don't know if that description is still relevant, but I'd say it's still pretty accurate. Thing is, "Rock and Roll" isn't even about the genre, it's about two people who are trying to fit in; finding love for one another after a one-night stand. Much as I love rock music, I think that's a far more interesting topic for a song.

Sounds Like This also features "Back to Where I Was," a song that was featured in an inspirational video mixing together segments from Randy Pausch's Last Lecture, videos of people overcoming adversity and the song. Warner Music Group was still very possessive with their music at the time and had the video taken down, even though Hutchinson found a number of fans through that video. 

Hutchinson sings and writes soulfully, even when the subject matter isn't very serious. This is an album I love to sing along to front-to-back.

Miniature Tigers released their debut album, Tell it to the Volcano. I found it in 2010 due to a Last.FM recommendation based on my interest in Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. I actually don't understand what exactly makes this album so good, I just know that I knew from my first listen that I was a fan. I think it's a combination of the catchy melodies, the whimsical instrumentation, strong, firm drums, and playful lyrics reminiscent of youth. Not my youth, but someone's. 

"The Wolf" was featured in Easy some point. It's not on my Blu Ray, but it was in there at some point. It's one of the standout tracks from Volcano, but there are others. "Cannibal Queen," "Like or Like Like," "Giraffe," and for me just the whole album. The whole album is fun and catchy in a weird way. 

Moving on to something I can explain better, one of my favorite albums of all time, drumroll please...

Narrow Stairs for me, is when Death Cab For Cutie were on the same page the most. They had solidified their lineup, their label and their fanbase. Narrow Stairs isn't just The Ben Gibbard Show like Plans. The rest of the band are given time to really shine. Chris Walla's production might be stronger than it was on any other Death Cab album. And even though I just said that thing about it not being The Ben Gibbard Show, his songwriting is peak on the album as well. Walla said of the album in a Billboard article "The landscape of the thing is way, way more lunar than the urban meadow sort of thing that has been happening for the last couple of records."

Sure enough, Narrow Stairs begins with "Bixby Canyon Bridge." It starts slow, quiet and sparse, but by the end of the song, it is an organized cacophony. In the final moments, it winds back down for a quiet close that ends on an echoing "you." The space is then left empty for just a moment before launching into "I Will Possess Your Heart," the top single from the album. "I Will Possess Your Heart" clocks in just shy of eight and a half minutes, which means it is full of time for jam space. It is loaded with a strong bassline by Nick Harmer, keys, and ambient sounds from guitars. The lyrics don't begin until halfway through the song. When they do, the story woven is akin to "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, a needy stalker who "knows" they are destined to be with the object of their affection even though that person "reject[s their] advances and desperate pleas." 

"No Sunlight" changes the tempo of the album with an upbeat major key song about the narrator losing his optimism and positivity as he grew up. "Cath..." follows with strong guitar and drums and a sad tale of a woman who settles for a man she doesn't love. It is basically the story found in Wuthering Heights, right down to the character in the book being named Catherine. However, Gibbard has never stated a connection. 

I have discussed "Talking Bird" previously. The thick, fuzzy chords create a dreamy landscape as Gibbard sings of a woman who seems "caged" but is really free to leave at any time. The lyrics seem to be personal as the band marches into "You Can Do Better Than Me." Between Plans and Narrow Stairs, Gibbard lost a great deal of weight, and the lyrics reflect that, "I've been slipping through the years//My old clothes don't fit like they once did//So they hang like ghosts of the people I've been." This convinces me more than anything that this song is personal for him. Walla executes another perfect transition into "Grapevine Fires." Walla stated that he attempted to see what happened if he stepped back and just let the band play is if live, but I still hear many decisions he made on the album. "Grapevine Fires" was about the California wildfires of 2007. Jason McGerr emulates a "Purdie Shuffle" drumbeat for the track.

"Your New Twin-Sized Bed" is the sad tale of someone accepting their romantic isolation ala "Learn To Be Lonely" in The Phantom of the Opera. "Long Division" reintroduces a chugging bassline and features some of the strongest lyrics on the whole album. It also re-introduces the mentions of open doors found in "Talking Bird" and the E.P. that followed Narrow Stairs, The Open Door E.P. 

We slowly roll into the last two tracks, beginning with "Pity and Fear," which has a Middle-Eastern feel to the instrumentals that begins with the drums. "Pity and Fear" ends abruptly, evidently due to a faulty tape machine, but it works very well for the album. "The Ice is Getting Thinner" closes out the album, a track about feeling the inevitable end of a relationship.

Spring/Summer 2008.
I actually think I bought Narrow Stairs right when it came out, although I don't remember if that was on purpose or kismet. I can always go back to this album and find new things, new meanings, new instrumental quirks. Every track means something to me but I'm going to highlight some of what I hope are my more meaningful thoughts.

"No Sunlight" has always been one of my favorite tracks, but I've also always dug the way "Bixby Canyon Bridge" opens up the album. There is a genuine sadness to Narrow Stairs that Gibbard said he never wishes to reexplore. "Long Division" contains clever lyrics that are probably the most similar to The Open Door E.P. (which I highly recommend). I have a tour shirt from this era that has a long division problem with the name of the band over it. Nerd that I am, I thought that was just the cleverest tour shirt. I don't disagree with my 16/17-year-old self. "Grapevine Fires" is one of the first songs I learned to play on keyboards, although I only learned the first page or two that was free online.

I can't even say anything else, because if you aren't convinced to hear the album after all I've said so far, there is surely no hope for you.

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Join me tomorrow for my favorite album of my graduating year, 2009.

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