You can imagine Ben Gibbard’s late-’90s Bellingham, Washington, bedroom; a copy of Tape Op magazine, well thumbed-through, lying on the floor; a Low album on the record player; a Tascam 4-track recorder sitting on a nightstand, with an acoustic guitar leaning against it.
Death Cab for Cutie, the solo project Gibbard would have been working on at the time, taking a break from his band All-Time Quarterback, sprung from these somewhat modest beginnings. And the rise of this band, from sub-genre obscurity to global acclaim, is, in many ways, the story of the rise of indie rock.
As Death Cab’s sound expanded, from lo-fi bedroom pop, to a sound heavily indebted to regional favorites, to one all their own, so did their popularity and the popularity of the nebulous genre of indie, itself.
This is the story of a band that’s been told before; bands like U2, R.E.M. and Radiohead, who soaked up and assimilated the sound around them and conjured up a way to make those sounds palatable to more than just a cult audience.
Death Cab For Cutie processed everything near to their musical hearts – slow core, emo and the regional sounds of the Pacific Northwest (Built To Spill, K Records) – and made something all their own, and for everyone to keep.
In Chronological Order
Death Cab's first full-band album, and the first full-length to feature the band's driving creative partnership of Gibbard and guitarist/producer Chris Walla, is very much the product of the band's surroundings, at the time. Something About Airplanes sounds like a band that listened to a healthy amount of Built To Spill and played shows with the likes of 764-HERO, while certain tracks, like "Sleep Spent," owe their entire existence to the then in-vogue slowcore movement.
Latecomers to the band will be surprised to hear the presence of a Farfisa organ (on "President Of What") and the reliance on crash cymbals by then-drummer Nathan Good; what they'll be most shocked by is the sheer anonymity of the band.
Something...is really a bridge album — Gibbard's transition from solo artist to band member/leader — with five of its songs appearing, in a more stripped down fashion, on the all-Gibbard-tracked You Can Play These Songs With Chords. You can imagine Gibbard frightened of his new musical surroundings, as tracks like "President Of What" find his voice cloaked in reverb and sounding confused, singing, "Entered the scene, I was told, on, I think it was a Monday."
On their second full-band album, Death Cab For Cutie find their voice, even as their singer/songwriter is still finding his. We Have the Facts... sees the blossoming of Chris Walla's production talent, one that has proven experimental and adventurous enough to keep some of the band's more discerning listeners engaged, while never alienating the one's that just show up for the tunes.
Walla's embellishments and the band's increasingly assured playing elevates We Have the Facts more meandering tracks, wrapping a warm atmosphere around occasionally aimless songs.
The album starts slowly, occasionally falls out of focus, but picks up in a big way with "Lowell, MA," "405" and "Company Calls" — all songs that would be staples of Death Cab's live set and something of templates for them for the next few years.
Ultimately though, the pleasures of We Have the Facts... are found in its slowcore indulgences. Fans of Bedhead, Low and Codeine will recognize their beloved bands' dynamics and melodic dialects lovingly appropriated for the purposes of what are still, ostensibly, pop songs. But the quietness wouldn't last for very long.
This one goes to 11. The Photo Album is where this previously demure and somewhat reserved band gets a little swagger; it's as loud as they've ever been, before or since, and finds a (by then) road-tested outfit truly flexing their muscle.
Perhaps emboldened by his band's juiced up sound, Ben Gibbard finds his voice on The Photo Album, both lyrically and vocally. Maybe playing the wallflower was no longer an option; a shy and retiring singer would have gotten lost in Death Cab's newfound storm and stress, so Gibbard grows up and, for lack of a better term, grows a pair.
The Photo Album sees the first examples of what would become something of a Gibbard trademark: the striking, detailed opening line as emotional hook. His voice is one of the first sounds you hear on the album (after a single stroke of a guitar chord) and he immediately begins a new and more assured career as a narrator, sketching out a vignette in lead track, "Steadier Footing," that's just specific enough to be true and just general enough to touch a listener.
Transatlanticism is more or less about a long distance relationship, but it's also about a band letting go of its humble beginnings, its humble attitudes and opening up its sound to a wider world.
Released in 2003, Transatlanticism was the right album from the right band at the right time. Gibbard might declare that he doesn't feel any different, as he does on the album's lead track, "The New Year," but things sound different, more open, more direct and, finally, recognizing their strengths — their subtle production flourishes, Gibbard's ear-catching if occasionally cringeworthy lyrics and the band's simple and lovely way with a melody — and playing to them.
Transatlanticism is Death Cab's strongest collection of songs, showing off both their ability to play upbeat, if slightly sad, pop as well as glacially-paced meditations, without ever forgetting there is someone listening.
If earlier recordings were made for purposes of self-entertainment or self-therapy, Transatlanticism, despite its obviously personal resonance to Gibbard (the album ends with the line "this is fact, not fiction, for the first time in years"), is a record for listeners, both familiar and new to the band. Even songs that would ordinarily seem like indulgences, such as the seven-minute centerpiece title track, hang their hubris on a very relatable, as Gibbard repeats the mantra, "I need you so much closer," over and over again.
Ultimately, it was "Sound Of Settling" that signaled this band was no longer settling for cult acclaim. It's practically Gin Blossoms-esque in its immediate likeability. Gibbard, translating his emotionally naked, finely detailed poetics into catchy lines, sings about a hunger and with the "ba-ba's" and fuzzed out chorus guitars, one gets the impression that hunger has something to do with reaching a bigger audience.
After Death Cab for Cutie's 2003 album Transatlanticism led to countless song placements in TV shows and films, it seemed like a natural progression for the band to leave longtime indie Barsuk for a major label - Atlantic. (Adding to the band's high profile: Give Up - the debut LP from the Postal Service, Death Cab frontman Ben Gibbard's project with Dntel's Jimmy Tamborello - had been released only months before.) Transatlanticism had been the group's cleanest work to date - lush, cinematic layers of sound had replaced the subtle fuzz that used to loom over every track - and Plans follows a similar formula. But where Transatlanticism was about the past - breakups, memories, long-distance relationships - Plans finds Gibbard looking to the future. Ultimately, it's a question of who's going to love you and, therefore, who's going to watch you die. That's to say: The lyrics haven't gotten much happier, but the band's found its sound and is sticking to it.
Several of the songs revolve around love after death: In the ethereal single "Soul Meets Body," Gibbard sings "If the silence takes you/ Then I hope it takes me too;" in the stripped-down-acoustic "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," he croons, "If there's no one beside you/ When your soul embarks/ I will follow you into the dark;" and in the grim, piano-driven hospital song, it's "Love is watching someone die/ So who's going to watch you die?" as his character paces the waiting room. It might sound grim, but Gibbard's never been one for conventional happy endings.
Though Plans is missing rock anthems akin to Transatlanticism's "The New Year" and "The Sound of Settling," its sound is just as a massive - much of which can be attributed to Chris Walla's increasingly sharp production work. Opening track "Marching Bands of Manhattan" begins with a stuttering reverbed guitar and an organ, then a series of steady chords and tambourine shakes before the drums and bass kick in. "What Sarah Said" is founded on arpeggioed, sometimes-layered piano chords; in "Your Heart Is An Empty Room," an organ warps together with shakers and slowly-building electronics. There are no big surprises on this go-around, and maybe Plans sounded, in a way, like settling. But what it really did was lay the groundwork - and give them the audience - for the experimentation that came next. - Laura Leebove
If Death Cab's major-label debut, Plans, saw them reach a modicum of mainstream cache, Narrow Stairs is where they gambled with it, bravely experimenting and changing their sound, challenging their newfound audience along the way.
You can almost imagine the band consciously following the work of forerunners like U2 and R.E.M., groups that had risen from the underground to achieve mass success and then testing their newfound audience with stylistic shifts.
Narrow Stairs is by no means Metal Machine Music — or even OK Computer, for that matter — but it is a dark and stormy Death Cab For Cutie, indulging in psychedelic, noisy flourishes and exhibiting, for the first time, some palpable anger. And it suits them.
"Cath," will sound fine next to "Sound Of Settling" when the eventual Best Of... drops, but it's in no way indicative of the sound of this adventurous and complex album.
"I Will Possess Your Heart," both as a song and in its status as the band's first single, is a brazen statement of intent. "You gotta spend some time with me," intones Gibbard and he means it; at eight minutes, this track sees Death Cab discovering, possibly, the first groove of their career.
Written in California, the album has the windows down, with Gibbard surveying the new landscapes and his new life. And he's not exactly feeling at home, yet. "Bixby Canyon Bridge" might try to tune in with nature, but the pounding drums and careening guitars see something sinister lurking on the horizon.
That's the thing: Narrow Stairs is about looking outwards, not inwards; with Gibbard observing a much wider world than the one he had seemed to previously constrict himself to (even when he was trying to love across an ocean). And the band is joining him in his journey, stretching out.
Somewhere along the line, Death Cab for Cutie got huge. The unassuming rockers from Bellingham, Washington, went platinum with 2005's Plans (a milestone even Arcade Fire haven't matched), topped the charts with 2008's Narrow Stairs, and even contributed the lead single (over Thom Yorke, the Killers and Muse) to the Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack. Oh, and Ben Gibbard, the group's lovelorn boy-next-door frontman, married actress/She & Him singer Zooey Deschanel a couple years ago.
It turns out hugeness becomes them. On Codes and Keys, the instinctively self-effacing band appears, for the first time, at ease with their steady, organic success; the result is the best Death Cab record since 2003's Transatlanticism. Where the bleak Narrow Stairs telegraphed its gestures toward adventurousness too obviously, here atmospheric electronics and foreboding bass lines lock together seamlessly in songs that find indie rock's quintessential Smart, Sensitive Guy finally coming to terms with everything he's secretly been afraid of: domesticity, comfort, Los Angeles.
A lot of that is thanks to the band's guitarist and longtime producer, Chris Walla, who - with mixing help from alt-rock luminary Alan Moulder - has created a space for Gibbard's melodies that's as vast and conflicted as Southern California. When Gibbard played a stalker over motorik propulsion on Narrow Stairs' eight-minute first single, "I Will Possess Your Heart," he was stepping out of his comfort zone, and it didn't entirely work. When this still-recent honeymooner rejects womanizing on potential future single "Some Boys," tweaking the Rolling Stones' "Some Girls" while subtly incorporating elements of 1970s art-rock, he's playing to his strengths. It's a refreshing change.
Gibbard sounds most at home on joyful finale "Stay Young, Go Dancing," where he giddily embraces waltzing the years away with his wife in a city he once dubbed "the belly of the beast." The lyrics have a casualness that rings true - a touching contrast from the cloying self-deprecation of Narrow Stairs love song "You Can Do Better Than Me." There's even a quick nod to the Supremes in the line "When she sings, I hear a symphony."
Gibbard's lyrics will always make or break the deal for many listeners, but what distinguishes Codes and Keys is its Walla-led emphasis on electronics. An extended keyboard meditation opens album centerpiece "Unobstructed Views"; on the penultimate "St. Peter's Cathedral," Gibbard murmurs over a minimal whir, with bum-bum backing vocals replacing a guitar line. Both songs do a good job of setting the concept of home life within an existential context: No God, no afterlife, only love. Love and song. An album obsessed with the concept of home, Codes and Keys sees Death Cab sounding at home within itself. On the title track, Gibbard repeats "We are one/ We are alive," through rickety keyboard and aching strings. It's unclear whether he's addressing his wife, the band, the listener, or all of the above. Till-death-do-us-part rock: It could be huge. - Marc Hogan