Posts tagged: Death Cab for Cutie

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”

The Helio Sequence – Open Letter

By , August 29, 2012 10:00 am

It’s been a long four years since the Helio Sequence last showed up on the indie radar with 2008′s superb Keep Your Eyes Ahead, an album that was just as much about persevering and finding greater heights (singer/guitarist Brandon Summers damaged his vocal cords and had to learn how to sing again) as it was a startlingly affecting, emotional indie rock record. Negotations follows in much that same vein, with influences from Built to Spill to Spiritualized to Death Cab for Cutie clearly evident (and drummer Benjamin Weikel’s expansive playing a constant highlight). ”Open Letter” is my early favorite, a slow-moving, melancholy bit of post-punk that calls to mind Keep Your Eyes Ahead opener “Lately.” Negotations arrives on Sub Pop on September 11.

The Helio Sequence – “Open Letter”

Death Cab for Cutie – Underneath the Sycamore (Dillon Francis Remix)

By , November 18, 2011 10:00 am

Well, I certainly didn’t see that drop at 1:32 coming in. Dillon Francis’ hard-charging electro take on the relatively tame “Under the Sycamore” is the latest in Death Cab for Cutie’s ongoing Codes and Keys remix EP, which will drop in its entirety at the end of November. Previous remix-ers have included RAC, Cut Copy and Yeasayer, but this is the first one I’ve heard that really takes things in a 180-degree turn from the original. Indeed, one unfamiliar with the song would be hard pressed to even recognize any Death Cab in this mix. Depending on one’s opinion of Codes and Keys, that might be a good thing…

Death Cab for Cutie – “Underneath the Sycamore (Dillon Francis Remix)”

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”

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

By , May 13, 2008 12:00 pm

Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs

Atlantic 2008

Rating: 6/10


Well, no one can accuse Death Cab for Cutie of selling out. While their last album, Plans, had many questioning Ben Gibbard and company’s artistic vision, Narrow Stairs is a firm step in the other direction. It starts off unabashedly experimental and continues, for the most part, in that direction for the remainder of the album. But is Death Cab being experimental just for the sake of trying to do something new? With their newest, it’s a little bit hard to tell.

“Bixby Canyon Bridge” starts off with a wash of ambient noise and Gibbard’s distinctive, eternally boyish voice talking about arriving “at the place where your soul had died.” The song is a striking departure from their earlier work, all pounding instrumental crescendos and a ridiculous noise freakout at the climactic finish. Hey, I can still dig it, as Gibbard’s lyrics remain as strong as ever and the song has a powerful cathartic feel to it.

Things get a little out of hand, however, with the following song, first single “I Will Possess Your Heart.” The first four and a half minutes are a slow build-up of an instrumental jam until Gibbard’s desperate vocals kick in. To be sure, Death Cab was never meant to mimic Explosions in the Sky, and the rest of the song is neither interesting nor catchy enough to regain the interest lost in the musical masturbation earlier.

The band picks it up with “No Sunlight” and the following “Cath…,” two songs that call to mind the Death Cab of old. The melodies are solid, Gibbard hits the perfect dichotomy between his bright singing and the dark lyrics, and the band throws away any attempts at experimenting. The resulting focus on pure grade-A songwriting lifts the album back up.

And then the momentum is again killed with the meandering “Talking Birds,” which stumbles around a simple drumbeat and a droning guitar moaning in the background. It’s almost as if Death Cab is trying too hard to do something new, and in the process forgo any semblance of hook or melody to capture the listener.

Lyrically, the album is more somber in tone than Plans, and Gibbard is in top form talking about everything from the California wildfires to bedroom furniture. While the music follows suit and the instrumental choices are often more varied than in previous releases (kudos to producer/guitarist Chris Walla), too much of many of the songs sounds like just rocking out for the sake of pleasing themselves rather than advancing the individual songs or the record as a whole.

The best songs are those that play to Death Cab’s strengths rather than trying to create new ones. “Long Division” keeps the focus on song structure instead of deviating into a clusterfuck of sounds and comes off as fresh and urgent rather than forced. “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is a closing slow song in the best tradition of Death Cab gems like “A Lack of Color” and “Stable Song,” sounding wistful without dipping into sappy nostalgia.

Narrow Stairs is a hit-or-miss record. Whereas some of their more adventurous stretches succeed, most notably “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” others fall flat and turn the band’s attention away from what they do best. But Death Cab’s knack for churning out poppy yet thoughtful numbers like “Cath…” should keep their fans reassured that the foursome haven’t lost their gift.

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