Death Cab For Cutie
By Alexandria Brown
CULPRITS: Ben Gibbard (vocals/guitar/piano), Nick Harmer (bassist), Jason McGerr (drums), Chris Walla (guitar/vocals/piano) / Former members: Nathan Good (drums: 1997-2000), Michael Schorr (drums: 2000-2003)
ALBUMS: Something About Airplanes (1999); We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (2000); Forbidden Love EP (2000); The Photo Album (2001); You Can Play These Songs With Chords (2002 – recorded Nov 1996-Jan 2000); Transatlanticism (2003); Plans (2005); “Little Boxes” (Malvina Reynolds cover, Weeds theme song, 2006); “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood” (Billy Bragg cover, recorded live on Triple J Australian radio Aug 7, 2007); Narrow Stairs (2008); Open Door EP (2009)
HOW: I first heard Death Cab for Cutie in, oddly enough, a laundromat in Venice, Italy, in the summer of 2004. I heard them again in, odder still, a laundromat in Berlin, Germany, a few weeks later. Like many people, I was hooked with the catchy love song “The Sound of Settling,” a tune about looking forward to growing old that most people mistake for an ironically poppy song about settling for a mediocre relationship. Every year since then I have made a pilgrimage to see them play live. They can veer deftly between indie rock and indie pop without sounding twee, forced, over-produced, or sappily emo, something few “indie” bands can claim. Yet for me it’s all about Ben Gibbard’s lyrics. It’s poetry with a beat, and a killer beat at that. Every song tugs at me in different ways, and each listen brings a new level, a new interpretation, and a new connection.
WHY: If you listen to every album in chronological order (and I have, many, many, many times), you can hear the change and growth, in lyrical quality, content, intention, production, and the music itself. The band’s earliest music is teeming with young adult angst, sexual desire, romantic frustration, and the ever-present fear of growing old and growing up. Someone is always causing someone else pain and heartache, and in-between there is lots of drunken (and later regretted) sex.
By the 2000s, Ben and his bandmates were out of college and cresting on their mid-twenties. The romantic frustration and sexual desire are still humming under the surface, but the bi-polar nature of love has softened with experience and understanding. It’s no longer the intensity of the experience that drives them, but the end result, and that is tinted with disappointment and regret. Age and maturity signal change and growth, but that alteration also means something once familiar is dead and gone.
With Plans they focus on the journey itself; they’re resigned to the inevitable, but that doesn’t stop them from falling in love in the meantime. Narrow Stairs shows the band in their thirties and a suffering different kind of desperation and fear: no matter how grown up they act, no matter how many times they mend their broken hearts they can never be satisfied with what they have. Relationships are prisons when you’re in one, but loneliness is its own kind of prison, as well, one with a barred window showing you what you can never have.
SONGS: This mix is really just a basic introduction to Death Cab. I tried to include enough hard-to-find tracks while still getting at least 2 songs from their full albums. There are a ton of other songs I wish I had room to include, but for the most part this should give the average peruser a good idea of what the band has to say and what great heights they are capable of achieving. You’ll also get a feel for their covers (of which they do plenty) and get to hear them play live as well.
SIDE NOTE: Also check out the Ben Gibbard/Jimmy Tamborello’s (of Dntel) side project, The Postal Service, anything from Ben’s solo tour, his pre-DCFC one-man band ¡All-Time Quarterback! (1997), and his hard-to-find 6 song demo tape done with Justin D. Kennedy (of Army Navy) under the band name Pinwheel (1994-1998). There’s also a ton of covers and live stuff hidden all over the Interwebs if you’re good at sleuthing…
LINK: Click on the list below to see the 80MFL iMix, where you can listen to samples, download what sounds good, or get the whole thing!
Alexandria Brown is a librarian by day, writer by night, and archivist in training. She was born, raised, and still lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and when she’s not at work or procrastinating on her homework for an ongoing Master’s degree you can usually find her at the beach, driving to the beach, or setting up iPod playlists to listen to at the beach.