Since Death Cab For Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard is finally releasing his first proper solo album, Former Lives, it seemed appropriate to ask about the most meaningful solo albums in his record collection. As eMusic’s Annie Zaleski spoke with Gibbard, however, it became clear that these cherished albums influenced Former Lives – whether intentionally or otherwise. Below, you’ll find Gibbard’s assessment of his favorite solo records – and eMusic’s armchair analysis of those inspirations.
Emitt Rhodes was the singer of this band called the Merry-Go-Round. They had a couple of songs on Nuggets compilations – they were a Southern California, kind of Beatles-y, proto-Beatles garage band. He plays everything on [this] record. He basically took all the advance money from the album, bought all this recording equipment and made this record all by himself.
It’s a perfect record. From top to bottom, it’s one of my top 10 records of all time. People called him the one-man Paul McCartney: That was one of the labels on him when the record came out. This record’s been one of my favorites for years, and it’s been certainly a source of inspiration when it comes to wanting to make a record where you play virtually everything yourself.
The songwriting is just phenomenal. [The songs] deal with rather broad topics, but it’s a seamless record. It doesn’t feel like somebody trying to pull one over on the listener. It sounds like a band – and the arrangements are so perfect, the production is fantastic. It’s really understated. If people want me to play something they may have not had heard, and they’re not crazy record collectors, this would be the first record I’d pull out.
Armchair Quarterback: While there are several guest musicians on Former Lives – including the mariachi group Trio Ellas and jack-of-all-trades drummer Jon Wurster – Gibbard indeed plays most of the music himself. You wouldn’t know it unless you read the liner notes, though; the album’s arrangements are rich and resonant. A duet with Aimee Mann, “Bigger Than Love,” boasts trembling organ and sturdy guitar jangle, while the mournful “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” layers stacks of harmonies over gloomy piano and percussion.
He was in this seminal folk-rock band in England called Lindisfarne. You can find Lindisfarne records in dollar bins all over the U.S.; they never really were popular here. I bought this record because there was a [Rene] Magritte [painting] on the front [cover]. And I didn’t know it was Magritte when I bought it, but it was a funny-looking record and it was, like, $2. It was one of those rare moments where you buy a record based on the cover, and it becomes one of your favorite records. You just got really lucky.
It’s funky, David Bowie kind of stuff, but there’s a song on it called “I Hate to See You Cry.” I covered it years ago at solo shows, because I think it’s so wonderful. This record almost feels like an accidental record: This guy had all these great songs, and somehow they never made it on to Lindisfarne records. My friend Scott McCaughey was just tweeting about this record, and I feel like I saw somewhere that Eleanor Friedberger from Fiery Furnaces had mentioned it somewhere, too. Maybe people will start giving it a proper second listen.
Armchair Quarterback: Gibbard accumulated the songs which appear on Former Lives over an eight-year period – and yes, many of these could just as easily have appeared on a Death Cab record. The folk-pop character sketches “Lady Adelaide” and “Lily” fit with the pensive, stripped-down parts of 2005′s Plans; the acoustic “I’m Building A Fire” recalls the vulnerability and sparseness of 2000′s We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes.
Tom Verlaine, Words From The Front
Television’s Marquee Moon is an undisputed classic; it’s one of the greatest records ever. And the record after it was pretty good as well. [But] we got so little of such a great band. I started buying [Television guitarist] Richard Lloyd and [Television vocalist/guitarist] Tom Verlaine records after I got obsessed with Television. I love this [Verlaine] record because the lyrics are really fantastic, and the arrangements are all really interesting. There’s enough there that if somebody is into Television, they would certainly find something to love. But it’s also starting to push into ’80s production a bit. Some of the stuff probably sounds good to people now, after [that style has] kind of come back around.
Armchair Quarterback: Death Cab fans should be pleased by Former Lives‘ familiar signifiers, from deeply romantic lyrics to Gibbard’s lilting croon. But the record lets him explore some very different genres – including sepia-toned country (“Broken Yolk In Western Sky”), gooey ’70s pop (“Duncan, Where Have You Gone?”) and funky, crunchy classic rock (“Oh, Woe”) – which makes it distinct within his catalog. In addition, “A Hard One To Know” features a rather new wave keyboard line and some very Television-like, brisk guitar strums.
This record would be in my top five, I think. It’s the only Cale record that’s kind of orchestral. The arrangements are very beautiful, and the song structures and lyricism is really on point. This may seem sacrilege to some people, but I believe that John Cale’s solo career, that’s the best stuff to come out of the Velvet Underground after the Velvet Underground [split up]. There are Lou Reed records that I love, but I feel like John Cale is a lot more consistent. You can play [Paris 1919] for somebody and not to have to give a context for it, and it’ll just be great.
A couple of years ago, he was playing Paris 1919 at Royce Hall at UCLA. I had, through my management, just tried to get tickets: “If there is a way to get good seats for this, can you find out for me? I’ll buy ‘em – I just want to see it.” That request went from me seeing the show to, like, “Oh, I’m playing with John Cale at this thing.” [Laughs.] It was crazy – I ended up playing a song from [1970's] Vintage Violence called “Gideon’s Bible,” which is one of my favorite songs. It was one of those shows you never thought you’d see – and I was a ball of goo the whole show. It was so powerful.
Armchair Quarterback: In the album’s official bio, Gibbard makes it clear the release of Former Lives doesn’t signal turmoil for his main band: “I’m doubtful I’ll have another solo album for another 10 years because the health of Death Cab for Cutie has never been better.” But you don’t need to be a Death Cab fan to enjoy Former Lives, because the quality of the songs lets the record stand on its own, separate from Gibbard’s musical history.
I suppose it’s a little unfair to include Gene Clark, because he was in the Byrds for, like, a year. But he did go on to a solo career. He signed a record deal with Asylum Records, which was David Geffen’s label. Joni Mitchell was on [the label], and Southern California singer-songwriters – Jackson Browne’s on Asylum.
[Clark] took this huge advance on this record and made this. He went to Mendocino and wrote all the songs on the beach, in a house overlooking the water; [it was a] very romantic songwriting process. There were really big subjects written about on the record; it’s a really heavy record. The production’s a little over the top – big choruses and the songs are really long and epic.
Apparently, David Geffen was furious when he turned this record in, because there wasn’t really a single on it. It wasn’t in keeping with any of the other Asylum records at that point. They were a songwriter’s label, but they also were very commercially successful. This record was not destined for that at all. It was one of those records that torpedoed his career. He finally was able to make a record he really wanted to make, and had the resources to do it – and to receive so little support from everybody, including the press, was a bummer for him.
I’ve always been in awe of the songwriting. Even though Gene is dealing with some really large topics, he deals with them in a way that doesn’t seem overwrought and doesn’t seem precious. This period of singer-songwriter stuff I tend to really like. It’s an introspective period, but a period in which it was acceptable to be this way. It was encouraged – there are a lot of great records that came from that period.
Armchair Quarterback: Gibbard’s songwriting is generally introspective, whether he’s drawing from personal experience or exploring the inner lives of other people. But while Former Lives can be serious – “Dream Song” vividly captures the insomnia produced by racing thoughts and anxiety – it’s also delightfully whimsical. “Teardrop Windows” imagines that Seattle’s Smith Tower, a building which opened in 1914, is lonely now that it’s no longer one of the tallest structures in the city. “Oh, Woe,” meanwhile, imagines that “woe” is a nagging, impish human pest that’s determined to destroy someone’s life. Like Clark, Gibbard approaches well-worn themes from a fresh, creative angle.