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It’s fall, my girlfriend just moved out, and it’s raining. I’m sitting on my couch (one of the few pieces of furniture left in ourI mean myapartment), feeling pretty sorry for myself. Instead of a cozy queen-size bed, I have a pile of well-sobbed-over vacation pictures in the middle of the bedroom floor. I’ve got a phone, a TV from 1984, and’cause I’m that kind of guya half-full bottle of whiskey. But you know what? I can get over this. I refuse to let my life turn into a George Jones song. And I’m just about to pull myself out of today’s funk until I remember that I’m trapped in fucking Gaithersburg.
All of the above may just be life, but it’s also pure Death Cab for Cutie material. Like me, these fellas from Bellingham, Wash., probably don’t think of themselves as completely pathetic. And they’re notcompletely (even if they do sound a bunch like Elliott Smith). What they are is downcast, on-their-knees-pleading, feeling-sorry-for-themselves Northwestern rock.
Death Cab for Cutie started as a vehicle for frontman Ben Gibbard. In 1997, Gibbard recorded some tracks and released them as You Can Play These Songs With Chords in the most punk-rock of fashionson tape. The thing circulated and did well enough to encourage Gibbard to recruit fellow guitarist and organist Christopher Walla, bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Nathan Good as his regular band. Thus Death Cab for Cutie. The critics greeted the band’s subsequent recordings1998’s Something About Airplanes and last March’s We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yeswith warm reviews, and kids made Internet fan pages. Quoth the masses: “From now on I’m going to make it my mission to tell the whole world about DCFC. Or maybe not. The world doesn’t deserve them.” And: “DCFC is my favorite band in the world; and they’re so damn cute!”
We Have the Facts managed to fuse musical intensity with needy-sounding vocals and cheesy lyrics about breakups and not sound like the e-word. The trick was compartmentalization. Although cringe-inducing lyrics (i.e. “Left uninspired by the crust of railroad earth”) stank up the entire album, Death Cab veered away from the perpetual soft-loud waffling that has made the careers of its homely Midwestern cousins (the Promise Ring, Braid, and all of their offspring). The band never got really raucous; it kept the softer stuff soft and the louder stuff loudall while turning in a record of just about the perfect length. (Note to hopeful bands: This whiny-boy rock stuff can get a bit boring, so it’s best to keep those long-players at around 10 songs.) Even when I had a girlfriend, I could find gems hidden on We Have the Facts.
Death Cab had found a formula that worked, and it took that formula back into the studio for The Death Cab for Cutie Forbidden Love E.P. And now we come to the rub of sticking to what you know: Forbidden Love is a solid recording, on which you will find no exploring and certainly no experimenting. But that’s fine, ’cause sulky lovelorn folks can find it kinda hard to sulk through, say, a Dead C record.
The opener, “Photobooth,” greets you with a nice little electronic-drum intro, but this is as far as the Cabbies wander from their formula. “Song for Kelly Huckaby” is a really great lesson in how a band can reinvigorate strum-and-shriek dynamics with well-placed vocals, but it’s no shining example of a complicated rock tune. “Technicolor Girls” and the acoustic version of “405” (which appeared in blazing full electrics on We Have the Facts) are simple, brief, and alluringly folky. And “Company Calls Epilogue (Alternate)” is a half-assed attempt at a dub redux. Strip it down, drench it in reverb, and it’s dub, right? Pretty much. Except there’s no beat. But so what?
In fact, so what to all of it. So what if there’s no noisy background to offset the cheesy lyrics? So what if there’s no ditty so painfully self-debasing that it adds a bit of humor, intentional or otherwise? I’m sad, and these guys tell me it’s all OK. And it is. You don’t need experimentation to make a great rock record. Elliott Smith knows it. But where Smith can be boring, Death Cab triumphs, filling in his blanks and making him look like the male Alanis Morissette I was always afraid he really is.
I’m still awaiting that I-made-a-big-mistake-pretty-please-come-over call. Yet no matter how down I get, this is the music that makes me feel…well, if not good, than at least righteously depressed. Brooding and anxious, the members of Death Cab play like true victims (just like me) and are certainly pros. They outshine those other rainy Northwesterners with better vocals and music that transcends both Smith’s bland coffeehouse musings and Modest Mouse’s wanky bar rock. Sure, the band makes its living peddling to down-on-their-luck, housebound dumped people, but who doesn’t? CP