Given the monumental success (by indie standards, that is) of Death Cab For Cutie, it's surprising that the band's very existence was a fluke, born of spontaneity and coincidence rather than any premeditated plans or long established ambitions. The humble origins of the group are a testament to the fact that there's little in the way of correlations between a band's genesis and their ultimate fate, and the fact that greatness can just as easily emerge from a chain of Dickensian coincidences as it can from a rigid, pre-calculated set of blueprints.
Had Benjamin Gibbard, the frontman and driving creative force behind Death Cab For Cutie, been told in the mid-nineties that he would achieve considerable fame and success as a rock star, he would have assumed that this precognitive flash was referring to The Pinwheels, the power pop band that he had assembled several years before. At the time he would have had no inkling that within a few years he'd be at the helm of an altogether different indie outfit, as the events that constituted the catalyst for the inception of Death Cab For Cutie weren't even sparked by any plans for launching a new rock group.
Still perfectly content with his role in The Pinwheels, Gibbard decided to embark upon a solo side-project. The resulting set garnered Gibbard a great deal of local attention, but he lacked the means to perform these songs live without other musicians to support him.
The musical identity of The Pinwheels precluded their involvement in this endeavor, inspiring Gibbard to form a new group for the sole purpose of performing his latest work in a live environment. Dubbing this new group Death Cab For Cutie, a name derived from a song by the legendary Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Gibbard found that in just a short space of time his new indie outfit had thoroughly eclipsed his old one, on both a commercial and artistic level.
Thus the unfortunate Pinwheels vanished from the stage of rock and roll, replaced by a band that was destined to rocket to the top of the indie pop scene. Beginning with a modest EP entitled You Can Play These Songs With Chords (which would subsequently be re-released with a plethora of additional tracks), the group was swiftly signed to a record label, leading to their full-length debut Something About Airplanes.
Death Cab For Cutie's musical style is a long way from Gibbard's power pop of old. On Something About Airplanes the band had already developed their signature brand of dreamy, hazy pop, but by no means was this airy mellowness reflective of a lack of edge; while the style certainly results in moments of beauty and can even prove soothing at times, it always betrays a darker undercurrent, along with an innate disposition toward irreverence and cynicism.
As far as lyrics are concerned, in the context of the band's music they certainly sound decent enough, but they fail to stand up to closer scrutiny. A more attentive perusal of the lyrics sheet reveals the pretentious verse of a limited poet trying far too hard to sound profound, and thus while not overtly embarrassing Death Cab For Cutie's lyrics are still by no means a valuable asset.
Thus it's with regard to melodies that the band truly excel, and distinguish themselves as one of the top acts on the contemporary indie pop scene. Gibbard has a flair for catchy vocal melodies, resulting in an array of memorable hooks that are always perfectly suited to the band's dreamy modality.
Bend To Squares is an ideal opener, introducing the listener to the band's musical style while providing an instantly accessible melody. President Of What? assumes an edgier approach while remaining completely melodic, Champagne From A Paper Cup offers an unforgettable refrain and Your Bruise is simply beautiful without straying too far from the band's darker undertones.
Pictures In An Exhibition is an already strong song that builds to a brilliant coda, Sleep Spent is suitably hazy for a track with that title, Amputations is a stellar pop anthem with one of the album's very best hooks (in the 'he's unresponsive cause you're irresponsible' line) and Fake Frowns is yet another burst of hyper-catchy indie pop.
There are two songs that aren't quite up to these high standards, but they're still worthwhile in the long run. The Face That Launched 1000 Shits is the lone track that Gibbard had no hand in writing, but despite its uncharacteristically coarse title and its seemingly incompatible style the band's performances ensure that it doesn't sound out of place despite its otherwise incongruous nature.
Elsewhere the closer, Line Of Best Fit, tries very hard to be moving, but this comes at the expense of any real musical substance, and this melodic deficiency dilutes the very emotional potency that the track is trying so hard to cultivate. The song still works, however, even if only on an aesthetic level, as the track is admittedly quite pretty, if not the cathartic anthem that it clearly aspires to be.
Thus even on their first full-length outing Death Cab For Cutie are already a musical force to be reckoned with, with material that boasts exceptional songwriting and impressive performances, tied together through dreamy atmospherics that, rather than lull the listener into a somnambulistic stupor, actually serve to make the music all the more engaging and compelling. Featuring some of the best content in the band's canon, Something About Airplanes is a modern day indie classic, and it's clear that, even if The Pinwheels had the capacity to become the premier power-pop outfit in the country, the machinations of history resulted in the right group enduring.
For many groups, the initial challenge lies in establishing and refining a unique artistic voice for themselves, and thus it's unsurprising that, having overcome this hurdle on Something About Airplanes, Death Cab For Cutie were content to simply rely upon the sound that they'd honed on that stellar outing.
This isn't to say that Death Cab For Cutie's sophomore effort is a carbon copy of their debut, but even when the band try their hand at something different the overall effect produced is remarkably similar to their usual style.
Thus when the group attempt to rock on tracks like the pop rocker Company Calls, the resultant material never feels like a radical departure from the band's norm. Part of this can be attributed to the identity that the Death Cab For Cutie have, intentionally or otherwise, developed for themselves, as the group's style invariably sounds markedly non-aggressive and un-confrontational. While the group can certainly be irreverent and cynical, there's seldom any anger imbued in their work, and this prevents their rockers from compromising the dreamy, unthreatening quality inherent to much of the band's output.
This isn't a case of padding every rough surface and smoothing out every last jagged edge; Death Cab For Cutie never shy away from controversy, nor do they avoid edgy subject matter. Rather their relatively mellow sound is a conscious stylistic choice that manages to, if anything, compound the potency of their rougher undercurrents, which are just as evident in their softer numbers as they are in their rockers. What seems to be diluting edginess with mellowness instead magnifies this edginess through contrast and misdirection, masking the band's agenda in order to make the ultimate sound all the more strong and forceful.
Forgetting all issues of overt or hidden edginess, what truly matters when it comes to Death Cab For Cutie is the caliber of Benjamin Gibbard's songwriting, and in this regard the gifted composer seldom disappoints. On We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes Gibbard has penned yet another set of impeccable indie pop numbers, filled with stunning, often beautiful melodies and an array of catchy and captivating hooks that, as usual, are never dulled or muted by the album's innate dreamy, hazy character.
The album is just as consistent as its topnotch predecessor, and thanks to its arresting atmospherics even the tracks with less musical substance, like The Employment Pages, are thoroughly involving and irresistible.
Most of the tracks don't need to rely on such assistance, however, as We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes is filled with a plethora of bona-fide Death Cab For Cutie classics.
The album begins perfectly with the moody, bewitching and often beautiful Title Track. Highlights abound, however, from the hyper catchy For What Reason to the glorious Scientist Studies (barring the aurally destructive final several seconds unceremoniously grafted onto an otherwise spectacular song).
The album isn't necessarily superior to its predecessor, but it's most certainly on a similar level, which is effusive praise in and of itself. Few groups could follow up a masterpiece like Something About Airplanes with a product on a comparable level, but Gibbard and company prove that they're truly top tier entrants into the indie pop scene with a pair of genuine masterworks.
No amount of guitar distortion or forays into the realm of intentional dissonance can change the fact that the music in Death Cab For Cutie's third full-length outing, The Photo Album, remains fundamentally faithful to the template that the band had established at their very inception, wholly unaltered in any meaningful respects.
This religious adherence to the blueprints of their previous output sabotages any hope for artistic progression, but it also ensures a high quality affair; as long as Benjamin Gibbard's facility for topnotch songwriting remains intact then the group's usual approach will invariably lead to positive results.
Unfortunately, while Death Cab For Cutie's reliance on the their tried and true formula helps maintain the high standards established by their previous work, it also means that the band fail to address the problems that have long been inherent to their material, namely their lackluster performance in the lyrics department. Gibbard's poetry is as pretentious and self-indulgent as ever, a procession of clumsy constructions bereft of eloquence or insight. This culminates in lyrical debacles like the melodramatic character assassination of Styrofoam Plates, a heavy-handed and simplistic burst of bile directed at the singer's father that has little to offer save the inadvertent comedy that stems from the sheer over-the-top nature of the song's vitriol.
Even discounting the band's considerable lyrical liabilities, the album is not without its defects, as there are songs that regrettably enough qualify as filler. The aggressive earnestness and sincerity of the opener Steadier Footing can't compensate for the track's colossal blandness, as Gibbard succumbs to the all too alluring temptation of degenerating into the role of introspective-confessional-singer/songwriter, a mold that ill-suits the Death Cab For Cutie's frontman's particular strengths.
Elsewhere the aforementioned Styrofoam Plates is a rare occurrence wherein the band's lyrics are so inane that they actively mar the overall listening experience (in the past the group's stellar melodies would invariably overshadow any lyrical defects to the point where they became a non-issue). Blacking Out The Friction, while far from bad, is decidedly lesser Death Cab For Cutie, which underscores the problem that most of the album's best cuts are concentrated in its first half, a case of poor structuring that exacerbates The Photo Album's already present flaws.
Fortunately, filler and sequencing issues aside, there're still more than enough excellent tracks to ensure that The Photo Album is on nearly even footing with its brilliant predecessors. A Movie Script Ending, aside from the fact that it should have been the opener as opposed to the anemic Steadier Footing, is yet another great entry in the band's canon, while We Laugh Indoors, in addition to being immensely catchy, is almost haunting with its near mantra-like repetition of 'I loved you Guinevere.'
Information Travels Faster is one of the band's very best songs ever, a supremely catchy, almost menacing number with an unforgettable refrain that doesn't cause Gibbard to skimp in the verse-melody department. Why You'd Want To Live Here is a mock-serious indictment of LA (particularly its pollution), I Was A Kaleidoscope has a lot to offer in the arena of pop hooks, Coney Island is simply beautiful and Debate Exposes Doubt is a strong track that hits its peak with its glorious call of 'finally there is clarity,' a fitting ending to the album as a whole.
As I'd alluded to before Death Cab For Cutie do try to branch out and expand their sound with gimmicks like distortion and dissonance, but the band keep these tricks to a minimum to the extent that they barely register or have any real impact on the overall listening experience.
At heart, The Photo Album is, predictably enough, yet another sequel to Something About Airplanes. As long as the group can sustain this level of quality, however, they're free to produce as many sequels as they want, even though The Photo Album, while still a superb offering, doesn't quite reach the level of their epochal, brilliant debut.
From a structural perspective, You Can Play These Songs With Chords bears a strong resemblance to REM's Dead Letter Office. Both collections start out with the real fan-bait, namely each group's otherwise unavailable debut EP, subsequently segueing into more obscure, niche territory with an array of rarities that will only kindle the interest of the most devoted of fanboys.
These parallels don't place the two collections on equal footing, however, as re-releasing Death Cab For Cutie's first EP is hardly tantamount to Chronic Town finally being readily available on CD. Whereas REM's diminutive masterpiece offers five stellar tracks, none of which can be found elsewhere, Death Cab For Cutie's early EP contains a mere three non-overlapping compositions, none of which are of the same caliber as the band's album fare.
From a quantitative standpoint there's no doubt that Death Cab For Cutie comes out on top, with a full eight tracks as opposed to REM's five, but there's little that's terribly alluring about these earlier versions of Something About Airplanes' numbers. Tracks like President Of What? and Champagne From A Paper Cup are certainly brilliant opuses, but they're simply not as refined and fleshed out as the band's subsequent album-based incarnations, as Death Cab For Cutie are a group that nearly always benefit from an extra layer of studio polish.
Thus what one is left with is five inferior (though still undeniably impressive) versions of classic Death Cab Fur Cutie material and three brand new songs. Admittedly these three tracks failed to make the jump from EP to LP for a reason, as they're somewhat underdeveloped when compared to masterworks like Pictures In An Exhibition and Amputations, but that doesn't change the fact that they're still high quality indie pop gems. Death Cab For Cutie were simply bursting with creativity at this early stage of their career, resulting in 'lesser' tracks that are still vastly superior to virtually anything else on the contemporary rock scene.
Thus Hindsight, That's Incentive and Two Cars are uniformly strong works that make eminently worthy candidates for inclusion on a future Death Cab For Cutie album provided the band makes just a few minor adjustments to them. Each betrays Gibbard's limitless potential as a songwriter, with all three sporting catchy melodies; it's clear that any given one of them would only require a bit more seasoning to become a full-fledged Death Cab For Cutie classic.
Oddly enough, it's the rarities section in which You Can Play These Songs With Chords trumps Dead Letter Office. Amongst this confused jumble of outtakes, castoffs and obscurities there are few tracks that won't hold at least a modicum of interest for any Death Cab For Cutie fan. Even the wretched Flustered/Hey Tomcat!, a parade of loops and samples animated by a spirit of immature experimentalism, is at least intriguing, and will hold at least mild charm for some listeners with its disarmingly innocent approach to the avant garde.
Another track that's understandably been summarily dismissed by many, yet also not without its perverse appeal, is the band's cover of The Smiths' classic This Charming Man. While I can relate to the critics who pour their derision upon the track, scoffing at its amateurish arrangements and primitive instrumentation, I still enjoy the song quite a bit, as a marriage of guitar-rock and The Smiths' elevated level of discourse makes for an irresistible clash of styles that I'm sure would elicit at least a bemused smirk from Morrissey himself.
The rarities section is certainly not without its flaws; TV Trays is a catchy affair but it's difficult to ignore the fact that aspects of its melody are rather conspicuously reminiscent of the opening of Radiohead's My Iron Lung, while the cover Wait simply sounds incongruous amidst the waves of more indie-flavored fare.
The main problem, however, relates to the overarching sound of the section. These compositions precede all previously released material by the group, and as a result there's an inherent rawness to much of the content. I'd have no aversion to such rawness were it not for the fact that one of Death Cab For Cutie's greatest assets is their ability to capture nearly every merit of this style without relying upon superficial or outward edginess. Through dreamy soundscapes the band's work encompasses far more depth and nuanced intelligence than the material of groups who wear their ambitions on their sleeves could ever hope to achieve. Death Cab For Cutie's technique of choice has always been subtlety (albeit not lyrically), with a deceptive level of meaning and edginess being cultivated through a blurry haze as opposed to loud declarations and transparent polemics. The dichotomy between Death Cab For Cutie's soft sound and harsh tone has always differentiated them from their indie pop brethren, and this model can even be employed to distinguish the band from their earlier, less mature selves.
This doesn't mean that these songs are only of value for historical reasons; on the contrary, nearly every one can be thoroughly enjoyed, as even from the beginning Gibbard had a gift for composing memorable melodies. The rarities, and even the three tracks left irrevocably stranded on an EP, may not be on par with the band's real album material, but they're still worthwhile in their own right, and more than merit the attention of any Death Cab For Cutie fan.
Since its release Transatlanticism has won the reverence and adulation of countless rock critics, who in turn have heaped every conceivable accolade upon the album, often heralding it as Death Cab For Cutie's magnum opus.
It's easy to understand this critical phenomenon, as from the very first moments of Transatlanticism it's clear that Death Cab For Cutie have finally exited their comfort zone. After lulling the listener into a false sense of security in its opening moments, The New Year erupts with deafening power chords and anthemic vocals that bear little resemblance to Benjamin Gibbard's customary sensitive croon. The song flirts with bombast, something virtually unimaginable for those who have been exposed to the group's usual understated approach, but manages to remain grounded thanks to its underlying intelligence and innate melodic nature.
While the remaining songs on Transatlanticism largely eschew this larger than life theatricality, they remain a decidedly different breed from Death Cab For Cutie's previous work. Whereas in the past the band's songs were apt to drift, never desultory but nonetheless dreamy and hazy, the bulk of the tracks on Transatlanticism are far more focused and compact, with an immediacy and sense of purpose that the group's prior compositions frequently lacked.
This isn't a criticism of Death Cab For Cutie's early fare, as this dreamy style proved irresistible, and even when the band's songs seemed less direct their tracks were still never at a loss for depth and meaning. It's understandable, however, why this newfound conciseness and clarity would appeal to a number of listeners. On a superficial level the songs' thematic weightiness is far more overt, communicated in a more streamlined fashion, requiring the listener to expend far less effort than they had in the past, thus making Transatlanticism a more easily processed musical experience.
In the long run, however, I don't attribute the album's worth to the band's increased accessibility, but rather to Gibbard's usual brilliant songwriting. The album is devoid of filler (though Passenger Seat is a bit on the bland and prosaic side), with a plethora of instant classics to offer.
The unparalleled forcefulness of the opener The New Year is appropriately tempered by the gorgeous simplicity of Lightness, a track boasting a sublime vocal melody that's superbly complemented by Gibbard's adroit delivery. Title And Registration provides a more serious counterpoint to the next two tracks, the considerably more lightweight but consummately catchy pop gems Expo '86 and The Sound Of Settling, yet manages to be provide just as much entertainment as the more axiomatically gratifying duo.
Tiny Vessels is a somber, haunting tune that grows more and more despairing with each repetition of the phrase, 'she's beautiful/but she don't mean a thing to me,' leading into the epic title track which manages to be profoundly moving for the entirety of its eight minute length.
Passenger Seat is decent but fails to stand out amidst superior material, but Death Of An Interior Decorator is another classic that in turn leads into the album's next explosion, namely We Looked Like Giants. The onslaught of power and distortion here manages to trump even the crescendos of The New Year, as We Looked Like Giants harnesses this kinetic energy for a far more emotional effect, penetrating the listener with the tenebrous tableau of young love. The song sustains a constant undercurrent of sneering menace, and while the volume and tone of the track cool down in its coda this inherent sense of danger still remains.
The album ends on a more innocuous note with the catchy but unspectacular A Lack Of Color, a sequencing selection that may seem strange at first but proves a most sagacious decision in the long run. In the end the listener is finally given the chance to recuperate after an emotionally exhausting listening experience that, be it loud or quiet, rocking or poppy, remains potent and involving the whole way through.
Thus Transatlanticism is yet another brilliant effort from one of the premier acts on the indie pop scene. I don't necessarily feel that the album is superior to masterworks like Something About Airplanes, which reflects my feelings about the band's new musical direction; while Death Cab For Cutie's new formula is undeniably effective, I wouldn't say that it's inherently better than their old stylistic approach. A debate on the relative merits and flaws of the group's disparate styles would simply confuse the true issue, however, which is the quality of the album, and in this department Transatlanticism is truly beyond reproach.
While it hasn't reached rap music proportions wherein cameos and collaborations between different artists are borderline ubiquitous, there's certainly a rich history of iconic indie rock figures uniting for joint efforts, be it Pollard and Superchunk, Iron & Wine and Calexico or Mark E. Smith and Mouse On Mars. Such partnerships have yielded erratic results, but it's difficult for an indie rock fan not to feel some measure of excitement when major figures on the modern music scene band together, be it for the sake of profit or art.
Give Up doesn't mark the first time that Benjamin Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello, of Dntel and Figurine fame, had joined forces, but it is the first occasion on which the duo released a full-length collaboration together. The two indie superstars adopted the sobriquet The Postal Service, an appropriate moniker that referred to the method of their partnership; Tamborello, the electronica extraordinaire, would send an array of techno sound collages to Gibbard, who in turn would add vocals and guitarwork to the jumble of computerized soundscapes, and the duo would proceed in this matter, swapping their music back and forth until a coherent product emerged from their musical correspondence.
While doubtless a unique and unorthodox artistic exercise, this scenario isn't exactly conducive toward the creation of actual good songs. Tamborello was forced to work on a more basic level, so as to make an electronica foundation that could actually accommodate a more conventional song structure, while Gibbard had to work within the limited framework that his partner had established for him. Thus neither Gibbard nor Tamborello could operate to the full extent of their abilities, heavily impeding any attempts at making a product that truly reflected the zenith of what these two men could, in theory, do together.
This isn't to say that the bulk of the music is bad, but the only song that I can truly muster any degree of enthusiasm over is This Place Is A Prison, a tenebrous and menacing number that sounds as if a mass of sonic sludge is coating the speakers, while Gibbard accompanies this swampy aural texture with a suitably ominous, haunting vocal delivery.
Other relative highlights include the poppy single Such Great Heights, a charming track that sadly lacks the catchiness it would need to qualify as more than a pleasant distraction, and Natural Anthem, which at least closes the album on a somewhat satisfying note.
What's more important is that none of those tracks succumb to the album's tendency to degenerate into something akin to electronic adult contemporary. Far too many of the songs on Give Up share that grim fate, as evidenced by tracks like the opener The District Sleeps Alone Tonight replete with the obligatory easy-listening ethereal background vocals and the inevitable bland melody.
Gibbard had always relied on his flexibility as a songwriter, but when stripped of this musical maneuverability few of his innate gifts as a composer can shine through. Forced to adapt his musical vision to a network of electronic sound-effects and computer clamor, the Death Cab For Cutie frontman essentially has his hands tied, and the result is a blasť blend of electronica and adult contemporary that lacks nearly every quality that made him a leading figure in the indie pop movement.
Give Up simply suffers from a paucity of catchy melodies and a severe lack of diversity. With most songs adhering to the same bouncy electro-pop blueprints (with some notable exceptions, like This Place Is A Prison) the album can grow aggravatingly monotonous. Worse still, electro-pop with a dearth of satisfying hooks has little to offer a listener save a minor diversion.
Classic Death Cab For Cutie albums were, on a superficial level, rather smooth and non-threatening, but their melodic excellence, edgy undercurrents and idiosyncratic character ensured that they were never in danger of devolving into adult contemporary. When only the smoothness and non-threatening feel remain, however, there's little to preserve this elegant balance, and there's little that the trappings of electronica can do to salvage the situation.
There are certain milestones in a band's ongoing history that will invariably elicit a particularly large amount of attention from the group's fanbase, events that will encourage added scrutiny and wary skepticism from a rock outfit's faithful followers who have been religiously following their idols' progress from day one.
It could be the departure of a band member or some sudden shift in musical direction, but there's no denying the fickle nature of hardcore fanboys who'll inevitably scoff at the slightest provocation, namely any kind of threat of a disturbance to their favorite group's status quo.
Death Cab For Cutie reached one such turning point with the release of Plans, the group's first album on a major label. Often fans will have a reflexive reaction to such an event, barely able to suppress their urge to shout 'sellout' long enough to actually listen to the CD itself.
As foolhardy as such a narrow-minded response is, there's no denying that the group's newfound major label status drastically altered their sound. Gone is the relatively raw production of old, replaced with the slick treatment that tends to accompany any increase in a group's budget. What needs to be remembered, however, is that it's still Death Cab For Cutie co-founder Christopher Walla at the helm of production, so it's not as if some alien force is leading the band along some dark and sinister mainstream pathway.
Thus the band retain full artistic control over their latest endeavor, and any changes to the group's traditional formula can be regarded as conscious decisions on the parts of Gibbard and company. No studio execs are asserting their dominance over the will of the band members, resulting in a final product that's unscathed by any perverse conspiracies on the part of the record label.
This doesn't, however, diminish the impact that the move to a bigger label had on the band. The quality of the acoustics on the album reflects a level of fidelity that would have been unattainable on the band's prior outings, essentially adding an entirely new sonic spectrum to Death Cab For Cutie's sound.
This improved aural depth and clarity is especially evident on the band's ballads, which could be the impetus for the group's decision to focus almost exclusively on the softer side of their sound. Plans is predominantly composed of ballads, with a pronounced de-emphasis on rock music in general. Whether or not this is a liability is a matter of personal preference, but there's no denying that Plans is an album of profound, heart-wrenching beauty, and that achieving this brand of elegant catharsis would have been unthinkable, or at least markedly compromised, without the benefit of these improved production values.
This focus on ballads makes the harder edged songs stand out even more so, further augmenting tracks that are already incredible works of art. Soul Meets Body, Someday You Will Be Loved and Crooked Teeth are admittedly rather pretty in their own right, but they also rank amongst the few tracks on Plans that qualify as rock music, and it's in this department that they truly excel. All three opuses boast terrific vocal melodies and the edgier undercurrent that's lacking from the decidedly ballad-heavy album, yet none of them sound the least bit incongruous, forced or tacked on. Rather they constitute a necessary part of the album, establishing an adroit balance between the different facets of the band.
The proliferation of ballads on Plans never detracts from the songs' individual merits, as each track features a strong melody and a fully developed, distinctive musical identity. Admittedly there are numbers such as Summer Skin that, while pretty, are somewhat forgettable, but the vast majority of these ballads are superb, fully fleshed out musical entities that are far too accomplished to ever instill a sense of monotony or sameness.
Truly Plans is a virtually immaculate album, providing a moving musical experience filled with beauty and passion. The only real complaint is the paucity of rockers, and whether or not that constitutes a flaw is fully dependent on the individual tastes of the listener. As someone who tends to favor rockers, my love of the album is a testament to the caliber of the material offered, and while I confess that Plans' lack of harder-edged content is what accounts for my ultimate preference of such albums as Something About Airplanes and Transatlanticism, this doesn't change the fact that the band's big label debut is a stunning work of art, a musical experience that should be appreciated by any Death Cab For Cutie fans regardless of their predilection for any particular genre or form.
With their major label debut, Plans, Death Cab For Cutie achieved a kind of limited perfection; on many levels the album was immaculate, with nary a note out of place and with production values that ensured a pristine, crystal clear listening experience, but nevertheless this perfection was confined to the limited areas that the band opted to tackle on that particular outing. Largely eschewing harder-edged material and transparently de-emphasizing rock music altogether, Plans excelled when it came to balladry, and in this department the album was indeed beyond reproach, yet this sonic perfection was seldom translated into any other musical avenues.
On Narrow Stairs, Death Cab For Cutie attempt to apply their newfound glossy studio sheen to an altogether darker, edgier listening experience, but in doing so they compromise the perfection that they'd achieved on their previous venture. Granted many songs on Narrow Stairs are quite beautiful, but this is a flawed, rougher beauty than that which was encountered in the idyllic sonic soundscapes on Plans.
This doesn't, however, mar or dilute the emotional potency of this flawed beauty; on the contrary, by 'corrupting' the aural perfection of Plans a kind of human, more accessible spark is engendered in the music that if anything compounds its visceral impact.
Thus it's often easier to relate to the imperfection of Narrow Stairs than the perfection of Plans. Furthermore, a return to edgier material, complete with a greater proliferation of rockers, makes for a more diverse, multifaceted listen.
Unfortunately, the imperfection of Narrow Stairs isn't merely relegated to rougher arrangements and patchier sonic textures, as it also extends to the caliber of the songwriting. Granted the bulk of Narrow Stairs is as strong as one has come to expect from one of the premier bands on the indie pop scene, but the album has a certain erratic character when compared to its immaculate predecessor. Thus tracks like You Can Do Better Than Me, while not bad, are decidedly lesser affairs in direct opposition to the maddeningly consistent Plans.
Nevertheless, Death Cab For Cutie classics abound, from I Will Possess Your Heart, the most menacing, unsettling declaration of love since Nick Cave's Do You Love Me, to the heart-rending ballad The Ice Is Getting Thinner which, perfect or not, is just as moving as any track culled from Plans.
Long Division is the kind of spirited rocker that Plans was sorely lacking, while Grapevine Fires, with its moody beauty, and Pity And Fear, with its almost tribal beats and unconventional vocal melodies, are signature Benjam Gibbard tunes complete with the artistry and intelligence that one has come to associate with the profoundly gifted songwriter.
Thus while Plans is ultimately the superior work, in many respects Narrow Stairs is the more daring and intriguing album of the two. Plans' perfection made for an exhausting listen, offering the listener no respite from its virtually constant state of moving, deeply emotional beauty, whereas Narrow Stairs is by far the less taxing affair, while still an intellectually and emotionally rich musical experience.
Plans seldom felt monotonous, but truth be told it missed an entire side of the band, and an incredibly important side at that. Given that Plans was their big label debut it's natural that on that outing Death Cab For Cutie would produce content that was particularly conducive to their new, studio polished sound, but it's on Narrow Stairs that the group begin to truly experiment with the new musical freedom afforded them by their greater production values, resulting in the band adapting the production to fit their material as opposed to adapting their material to fit their production.
There are a plethora of possible motives behind making an EP, from drumming up interest in an upcoming album to exploiting hardcore completists for a bit of extra cash, but there are few possible noble reasons for such an endeavor.
It's rare that a band will come together to create a high quality EP that's intended to stand on its own, an independent work of art devoid of ulterior motives. Thus the release of a new EP is customarily met with reservations, as oft burned fanboys will approach such a product with skepticism and trepidation.
The fact that these EPs are bred from the cynicism and avarice of record company executives doesn't mean, however, that there's no such thing as a good EP; it merely indicates that one must be wary when dealing with such a release, and come to the EP with a realistic notion of what to expect from it.
There's no denying that The Open Door was envisioned as a stopgap measure between full-length studio albums, but once one comes to terms with this fact there's still much of worth to be found in the EP. The Open Door is bereft of any new material, but this fact may work in its favor, as all too often EPs with original content will consist of a mix of sub par exclusive tracks with the occasional stronger number that will doubtlessly also be featured on the subsequent album.
The fact that The Open Door sports no new songs ensures that there'll be no overlap with future releases, while also signifying that there'll be no rushed toss-offs composed by a band more concerned with working on their next full album than contributing anything of value to a lowly EP.
Instead of new material The Open Door is comprised of four never-before-released outtakes from the Narrow Stairs sessions, along with a ukulele-driven demo of Talking Bird. The latter has largely been disparaged by critics and fans alike, who have mercilessly attacked this rendition for its simplicity and primitivism, but I prefer to view the track's undeniably basic arrangements as a charming brand of minimalism, and I'd even go so far as to say that this spare approach makes for quite a touching musical experience.
It is, however, the other four tracks that constitute the real attractions on the EP, and despite their status as outtakes they're uniformly strong numbers. From the hyper catchy pop rock of Little Bribes to the equally accomplished My Mirror Speaks, The Open Door offers a selection of songs on par with much of Death Cab For Cutie's catalogue, and the fact that these tracks were so rudely discarded will doubtless confound and mystify anyone exposed to the EP.
Admittedly the songs' omission on Narrow Stairs isn't an impenetrable enigma; Little Bribes might seem too lightweight, poppy and insubstantial for the brooding, solemn album, and I Was Once A Loyal Lover could come off as a bit too smug for the CD's serious tone, but while these are indeed valid reasons they nevertheless seem a tad misguided.
Fortunately these high quality songs have indeed been salvaged, and given a context in which they can truly shine. Thus The Open Door's greatest liability is its brevity, as that and that alone prevents the EP from assuming a place alongside Death Cab For Cutie's better opuses.
Opinions on art are an intensely subjective thing. Often reviews sound less like intellectual analysis and explanation of these reactions and more like flimsy arguments attempting to rationalize and defend a matter of personal taste.
Keeping this in mind, I have a visceral negative reaction to certain parts of Codes And Keys, Death Cab For Cutie's follow-up to the impressive if flawed Narrow Stairs. The tracks that I take exception to are of a cheery, poppy nature that had never appeared in the band's prior work.
Some critics have attributed Ben Gibbard's turn toward a more sunny disposition to his recent marriage. I see little merit in such idle speculation, and frankly don't care what caused this tonal shift. The fact of the matter is that tracks like Monday Morning and Portable Television are competently written and performed pop songs that I simply have an innate aversion to.
Death Cab For Cutie have featured pop tracks before, but never of such a cheery nature. The number that directly follows Monday Morning and Portable Television, Underneath The Sycamore, is also a pop song. It differs from those two, however, in that it embraces mellowness rather than overt peppiness. Underneath The Sycamore is a work of profound, ethereal beauty, a truly moving song that has little in common with the jolliness and perhaps even cutesiness of a Monday Morning.
Underneath The Sycamore is also refreshing in that it features a strong guitar presence on an album dominated by keyboard-work. While Plans was Death Cab For Cutie's big leap to a major label, Codes And Keys embraces studio engineering more than any of its predecessors. The band's latest venture finds them engaging in all manners of recording trickery, be it over-saturating the song Unobstructed Views with layers upon layers of needless aural textures or adding echo-effects to the opener Home Is A Fire not because they should but because they can.
Gibbard and company had already discovered the perfect balance between studio polish and organic songwriting on Plans, rendering their new recording hijinks unwelcome and superfluous.
Fortunately, Gibbard remains an exceptional songwriter. While his abuse of studio gadgetry and his misguided attempts to match Radiohead's mastery of sonic textures can be grating, they seldom prove intrusive enough to mar the quality of his music.
The cheeriness of certain songs is another matter. I simply can't overcome my aversion to songs like Portable Television, as its lighthearted sensibility is truly anathema to me. There are many groups that produce an abundance of 'happy' music without drawing my ire, but for some reason Death Cab For Cutie feel ill-suited to this mold. Songs like Stay Young, Go Dancing have plenty of solid pop hooks, but try as I might I can't get past the tone that permeates the track.
Luckily there are very few songs in that style. The majority of Codes And Keys consists of absolutely beautiful music of the kind that only Death Cab For Cutie can produce. The mellowness that animates much of the album is illusory, as critics who harp on the relationship between Gibbard's music and personal life tend to overlook the more subtle layers of melancholia that inform his latest venture.
Some of the songs, like the gorgeous Doors Unlocked And Open do indeed feature a certain tentative hopefulness. I have no problem with this, as there's a vast difference between hope and the excessive cheer that I take exception to.
The start of the album is virtually flawless, as the first four tracks are uniformly brilliant. Boasting exceptional vocal melodies and stirring music, songs like Some Boys are first-tier Death Cab For Cutie anthems. These tracks may be overproduced at times, but they don't sport the gratuitous sound effects that afflict the already lacking Unobstructed Views.
In the long run there are only a handful of tracks that I take issue with. Most of Codes And Keys finds Death Cab For Cutie at their finest. The album might have its flaws, but even so it's still a work of power and beauty, as one has come to expect from one of the top groups on the indie pop scene.