An often-great band with an awkward name, Death Cab for Cutie is, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, either a brilliant purveyor of sublime indie-pop…or everything that’s wrong with emo. To be sure, the Seattle (by way of Bellingham, Washington) quartet wears its rainy, Northwestern origins on vintage-shirt sleeves, with songs that emphasize the more subtle aspects of songcraft, pretty melodies and lyrics of melancholy introspection. On the other hand, DCfC writes supremely catchy and intelligent songs, and has demonstrated an instrumental expansiveness comparable to Built to Spill and Modest Mouse.
In 1997, Ben Gibbard, then recording as All-Time Quarterback, borrowed the Death Cab for Cutie moniker from a Bonzo Dog Band song title and recorded a cassette with his pal Christopher Walla. The eight-song You Can Play These Songs With Chords, with Gibbard on guitars and vocals and Walla on guitars and organ, was a blueprint for future DCFC albums: bright songs about girls and other hazards backed up by insistent melodies, exhibiting an underlying bitterness beneath a sweet exterior. “President of What?” and “Champagne From a Paper Cup” are especially impressive, focusing on the emotional fallout of missed opportunities and unrequited attraction.
Gibbard and Walla got Nick Harmer and Nathan Good in on bass and drums, respectively, and released Something About Airplanes, combining five songs from the first tape and five new tracks. Despite punchier songwriting and a relatively more muscular approach, the new tracks failed to improve on the repeats. But We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes brought the band’s songwriting to new levels of eloquence. While not quite a concept album, there is a storyline of sorts, describing the downward spiral of a relationship from beginning to end. “I tried my best to keep my distance from your dress / But call-response overturns convictions every time,” Gibbard observes in “Title Track,” over a hypnotic mid-tempo guitar line. The songs continue through the aftermath, acrimony coming in waves. “I hope that he keeps you up for weeks,” spits the singer in “For What Reason,” “like you did to me.” “405” is another gem, and “Company Calls” picks up the tempo with its shout-along chorus, jerky guitar and spry drumming. Walla’s production paints it all in a sort of sonic sepia tone, with vocals broadcast from some sadder place. It’s an effective technique that’s well-suited to the musical and lyrical themes of the record.
With Michael Schorr replacing Nathan Good on drums, DCFC continued their streak with the excellent Forbidden Love EP, consisting of three new tunes and alternate versions of a pair from We Have the Facts. The new songs are all keepers. “Technicolor Girls” conjures up images of middle American high school: a distinct sense of nostalgia and longing pervades the music, and lines like “But the letter jacket wasn’t yours to own / And it proves to be on a temporary loan” nail a sadness specific to 16-year-olds. “Song for Kelly Huckaby” is one of the band’s hardest-hitting pieces, with pounding drums, a wall of guitar squall and a wavering string section punctuating the melancholy melody. The pretty acoustic version of “405” shows off Gibbard and Walla’s vocals, and the alternate mix of “Company Calls Epilogue” is a nice addition. Once again, the production nicely emphasizes the sense of emotional and temporal distance.
The Photo Album, while not a complete disappointment, lacks the spark that made We Have the Facts and Forbidden Love so effective. There are moments of inspiration in “A Movie Script Ending,” “We Laugh Indoors” and “I Was a Kaleidoscope,” but there’s no consistency.
The Stability EP is a snoozer. Despite a cover of Björk’s “All Is Full of Love,” the disc is underwhelming. The band wanders without a sense of purpose, especially on the 12-minute title cut.
The 2002 Barsuk re-release of You Can Play These Songs With Chords augments the original cassette’s contents with tracks dating back to 1996, including a bewildering, though not terrible, cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” and a rendition of Secret Stars’ “Wait.” Experiments like the tape-manipulation epic “Flustered / Hey Tomcat!” are more questionable, but the 1997 Sub Pop B-side “Army Corps of Architects” is impressive. “Song for Kelly Huckaby” appears here in its rough original form. As none of the material compares to the band’s best, this is less than essential.
In 2004, DCfC signed to Atlantic Records and, the following fall, issued Plans.
Postal Service, a side project by Gibbard (vocals/guitar/keyboards/drums) and LA synthesist Jimmy Tamborello (Dntel / Strictly Ballroom / Figurine), does gentle, articulate, pleasing synth-pop at a lower boil than Pulsars and without the nostalgia of Future Bible Heroes. Give Up, which went gold and became Sub Pop’s second- best-selling release (after, of course, Nirvana’s Bleach), makes no effort to disguise its old-school electronic sound, but keeps the focus on slowly moving songs full of ideas, emotions and images. “Sleeping In” has verses about the assassination of JFK and global warming; “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight” dissects a social call for all its displacement and alienation; “This Place Is a Prison” levels a cold eye at the futility of scenesters and scenes: “This place is a prison and these people aren’t your friends / Inhaling thrills through $20 bills and the tumblers are drained and then flooded again and again.” Set against music of grumbly, martial intimacy, the lyrics cut like a butter knife, but leave their mark. A subtle triumph.