Posts tagged: Ben Gibbard

Ben Gibbard – Bigger Than Love

By , October 4, 2012 10:00 am

So, the long-awaited breakup album came not via a new Death Cab for Cutie but frontman Ben Gibbard’s first proper solo album. Death Cab’s 2011 release Codes and Keys waffled around atmospheric synths and songs that preferred to stretch out rather than get to the point. Gibbard’s new record, Former Lives, is a much more simple affair, rooted in a holy trinity of guitar, piano, and Gibbard’s preternaturally lovely voice. It’s all the better for it, allowing the music to center around the classic melodies and the lyrics (always Gibbard’s strongest talent). The underrated Aimee Mann joins in on “Bigger Than Love,” the album’s surging centerpiece.

Ben Gibbard – “Bigger Than Love”

Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

By , June 6, 2011 11:00 am

Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

Atlantic 2011

Rating: 6/10

There’s something to be said about Ben Gibbard’s transformation from a Built to Spill-loving Northwestern weepie to indie rock’s poet laureate. Death Cab for Cutie, for all their splendid musicianship and Chris Walla’s knack for evolving their sound, have always been about Gibbard. Gibbard, bemoaning a meaningless relationship in “Tiny Vessels” or articulating that eternal feeling of moving on that “Photobooth” spoke to so clearly, always so straightforward with his lyrical bloodletting but talented with his knives. Gibbard made self-flagellation and depression and that universal feeling of not always getting what you want an art instead of a blunt instrument, and that was always the key behind Death Cab’s success. It’s what led to them being erroneously labeled “emo” by the mainstream media after Plans’ success, what led to massive, unyielding popularity for a band that otherwise would have just been another number in a “best-of-the-00s” compilation. Even as their sound expanded and swelled, as major label budgets tend to cause, Gibbard remained the constant: evocative, steadfast, and preternaturally attuned to the hopes and fears of insecure youth.

On Codes and Keys, Death Cab take that constant and make it just another cog in a sound that remains progressive yet coldly distant. The focus on keyboards and synths at the expense of traditional guitars is omnipresent, but it’s Gibbard, the Death Cab mainstay, that is missing. Not in the literal sense, mind you; his sensitive tenor is still the same one that desperately yearned for intimacy and warmth on Transatlanticism, but the feeling has changed. It’s evident in the way it comes to you across the speakers: swathed in effects, reverb and digitalized effects predominating and making the most human part of Death Cab come across too often as chilly and disconnected. The lyrics don’t help matters. At his best, Gibbard is cautiously optimistic with a tendency to veer towards cloyingly sweet, as he does on closer “Stay Young, Go Dancing,” a song which would seem more at home in a Lifetime movie rather than a Death Cab album. At his worst he seems content to just string picturesque phrases together in the hopes that listeners will imbue them with their own meaning. “Somewhere down, down / down in the ocean of sound / we’ll live in slow-motion / and be free / with doors unlocked and open,” Gibbard sings opaquely on “Doors Unlocked and Open,” and a prize to the person who can divine the meaning behind it. Songwriters by the dozen can be accused of being needlessly abstract, but when Gibbard opens “Unobstructed Views” with a cliché like “there’s no eye in the sky / just our love,” you can practically hear the thud.

Structurally, Codes and Keys is a sound album, and one much more intent on “experimenting” than the red herring that was Narrow Stairs. This is still Death Cab, as one listen to any number of catchy melodies here will attest to, but the band seem much more interested in textures and the space between them. This works on a song like “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” where the gradual buildup between skittish synths and vocal harmonies pays off, but not so much on “Unobstructed Views,” which confuses boredom and repetition with experimentation. But for the most part, Codes and Keys sounds like you’d expect. For all its effects and haunting atmospherics, “Some Boys” is all about the hook and ear candy melody, as is the lilting, pleasantly trivial “Portable Television,” which is about as straightforward a song as you’ll find on the album. For all the good tunes, from “Underneath the Sycamore” to the pounding ivories of the title track, one gets the feeling that this is just Death Cab going through the motions, trying out this heavy use of piano and an increased studio budget because, well, it’s there and it sounds pretty damn cool. It’s telling that one of the best songs here, “You Are A Tourist,” makes its money off a vintage Chris Walla guitar riff that propels everything forward with the kind of candid energy many tunes here lack.

So, has Gibbard been Yokoed? It’s tempting to say, given how many of the songs here sound like the result of a man whose happy, maybe for the first time in years, but doesn’t quite know how to lay it all out. “Monday Morning” would seem to disagree, a lovely bit of Postal Service-esque electronica that is one of the most affecting declarations of love Gibbard has ever penned and happily fits into Codes and Keys’ sonic aesthetic. Unfortunately, it’s the exception that proves the rule, as it stands out from many of the other tracks because it is so distinctively genuine and, in turn, easy to relate to. That’s the heart of Codes and Keys problem, a dilemma rooted more in Gibbard’s change than the band’s direction. The Death Cab of Transatlanticism and even Narrow Stairs is long gone, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; singing about your darkest emotions for a decade plus is not the healthiest way to live (just ask Elliott Smith). Until Gibbard can harness this newfound happiness with the kind of lyrical flair his fans are used to, Death Cab remain in danger of being, well, just another indie band.

Death Cab for Cutie – “Codes and Keys”

Death Cab for Cutie – Portable Television

By , May 26, 2011 10:00 am

Indie institution Death Cab for Cutie’s seventh (!) album comes out next Tuesday. Codes and Keys favors piano-based tunes over your typical guitar, but Ben Gibbard’s songwriting remains the centerpiece. “Portable Television,” one of the more upbeat tunes on the record, is one of my early favorites.

Death Cab for Cutie – “Portable Television”

She & Him – Volume Two

By , March 17, 2010 12:00 pm

She & Him – Volume Two

Merge Records 2010

Rating: 7/10

Volume Two is about as appropriate a title as one could hope for from Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward’s second collaborative effort. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it’s without a doubt true: where 2008’s Volume One was the first example of She & Him’s sun-kissed brand of ‘60s girl-group pop and singer-songwriter folk pastiche, Volume Two is, uh, the second. Volume One consisted of thirteen tracks, three of those covers; Volume Two consists of thirteen songs as well, but ups the ante with only two covers. M. Ward makes only the occasional vocal contribution, preparing to work the production behind the scenes and let his vintage guitar do the talking, as he did on Volume One. Hell, even the album art is eerily similar, with that same slightly creepy faceless girl and a different color scheme. And Zooey is, well, still Zooey, never falling prey to the conceit of oversinging and using that lovely, country-inflected alto to melt Ben Gibbard’s heart. In short, it’s the same She & Him those who enjoyed Volume One fell in love with, and it’s the same She & Him that bored many to tears.

Is this a bad thing? Every listener will have a different opinion, but what it really comes down to is how you like your pop music, and whether you were really expecting any stretches in musical boundaries for Ward and Deschanel. To begin with, She & Him were never a revolutionary idea, merely two friends recalling the sounds of their youth and recreating them with the kind of steady hand and fine point that love and care brings along. They accomplished that effortlessly on their debut, and the results are more or less the same here. “In The Sun” is the same kind of guaranteed hit single (if one lived in the ‘60s) that “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?” was, although it lacks the blistering guitar solo that made the latter so much fun. Songs like “Don’t Look Back,” the gentle “Lingering Still,” and the swelling, bubbly tones of opener “Thieves” all call to mind the kind of Brill Building via Nashville blend that She & Him performed with so much flair on Volume One, and really nothing more. The fact at the heart of everything on Volume Two is that everything here could just as easily have been on Volume One.

But what made Volume One such a great record was its time capsule-esque quality, how it captured the sound of a bygone era and made it in the here and now without a hitch, and Volume Two, for all its (some would say necessary) similarity to its predecessor, repeats that feat remarkably well. While listening to the repetitive titular refrain of “Over It Over Again” near the end of the record, I was frustrated, disappointed with the seeming sameness of the record. It’s a classic case of overlooking the forest for the trees. Volume Two is a beautifully crafted record, as more listens prove – so long as you accept that this is what She & Him are and have been, and that this is what She & Him will likely always be. NRBQ cover “Ridin’ In My Car” is a delightful beach cruiser of a song, with a rare Ward appearance the icing on the cake. “Me and You” takes the duo’s understated country appreciation to a serene, gorgeous place, all wobbly pedal steel and Deschanel’s woodsy, ‘70s folk singer vibe. And “Home” might be She & Him’s best song yet, a graceful swoon of a song floating in breezy strings and airy drums, the kind of cool, carefree California rock ‘n roll that Deschanel epitomizes.

There won’t be that same flashbulb that went on after hearing Volume One, that shock that this was a modern working actress and her pal and not some long-lost Beach Boy groupies. For better and for worse, She & Him can’t go back to the beginning, but they can do a fine job of recreating it. This is lighthearted, carefree pop music, but it’s also surprisingly enchanting and, well, so damn catchy. There’s nothing clumsy about this, no famous actress hooking up with a talented songwriter to write meaningless songs (see: Johansson, Scarlett) – just a guy and a girl inviting you to share in their mutual loves a second time. And for all its delicate curves, for all the “ooh-ahs” and multilayered harmonies, for all the guitars on strings and bouncy piano and crisp drums, that’s just exactly what it is: a love for good, old-fashioned pop music, pure and simple.

She & Him – “In The Sun”

List Price: $15.98 USD
New From: $9.95 In Stock
Used from: $5.01 In Stock
Release date March 23, 2010.

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