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Death Cab For Cutie

+ {Benjamin Gibbard} + {!All-Time Quarterback!} + {The Postal Service}

Initially the solo enterprise for singer/songwriter and all-round innovator Ben Gibbard, Ben and DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE have extended their years of indie rock-pop and underground obscurity by becoming one of America’s major attractions of the post-millennium period. Since reluctantly taking up with Atlantic Records, the group have since chalked up a string of Top 10 albums, including chart-topper Narrow Stairs in 2008. A significant year for Gibbard, he became engaged to actress/singer/musician Zooey Deschanel, marrying her the following year; the pair separating after only a few years, their decree nisi absolute arriving in December 2012.
In summer 1997 the DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE meter was switched on when Bremerton-born Ben hitched a ride to the city of Bellingham in Washington state to record a cassette-only mini-set (YOU CAN PLAY THESE SONGS WITH CHORDS {*5}); the devilishly-titled moniker derived from a BONZO DOG DOO-DAH BAND number. Eight songs in all, from `President Or What?’ to `Line Of Best Fit’, a CD version, with added tracks cut just before and up to 2000 (including renditions of The SMITHS’ `This Charming Man’ and SECRET STARS’ `Wait’), was licensed to Barsuk Records in 2002.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE were a fully-fledged band from 1998 onwards, Gibbard adding previous guest vocalist Christopher Walla (guitar, keyboards), Nick Harmer (bass) and Nathan Good (drums). A hybrid of MODEST MOUSE’s tripped-out guitar hooks and BUILT TO SPILL’s solid indie rock sensibility, their debut album proper SOMETHING ABOUT AIRPLANES (1998) {*7} – traversing a few tracks from their previous cassette – caught the ears of the indie sect and left them crying out for more; `Bend To Squares’, `Sleep Spent’ and a cover of Dutch Elms’ `The Face That Launched 1000 Shits’ were an indication that DCFC were a quality outfit looking for a break.
Meanwhile, Gibbard had already kick-started the first of his many side-projects under the strange auspices of lo-fi Casio-infused act !ALL-TIME QUARTERBACK! A self-titled EP (featuring a cover of MAGNETIC FIELDS’ `Why I Cry’) and a cassette-EP entitled “The Envelope Sessions” (entirely accompanied by a toy guitar), were issued toward the fall of ‘99, although no one really took note until the songs were combined for an eponymous collection in 2002.
DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE picked up where they left off for what was to become WE HAVE THE FACTS AND WE’RE VOTING YES (2000) {*7}, possibly the outfit’s greatest achievement to date. Gibbard’s voice soared in songs such as `Scientist Studies’ and the `Title Track’, although it seemed fractured and poignant on the romantic `The Employment Pages’. With Michael Schorr in for Nathan, the 4-piece duly delivered a modest EP, `Forbidden Love’ the same year, a record which contained three fresh cuts, including the excellent `Photobooth’, and alternative arrangements of `405’ and `Company Calls (Epilogue)’.
2001’s THE PHOTO ALBUM {*7}, appeared to be taking the group in a new direction, namely that of PREFAB SPROUT and assorted C-86/Postcard-esque janglers (ELLIOTT SMITH was also a benchmark). Inserted by a TORTOISE-like polyrhythm, `We Laugh Indoors’ was an intriguing beat-addled track, while there cool kitchen-sick romanticism on `I Was A Kaleidoscope’, `Blacking Out The Friction’ and `Debate Exposes Doubt’. Meanwhile, Ben performed on drums for KIND OF LIKE SPITTING and their 2002 Barsuk set, `Bridges Worth Burning’.
Even softer and more solitary than its predecessor, TRANSATLANTICISM (2003) {*8} marked a belated entry into the Top 100, carrying the torch for sophisti-indie in the abrasive neo-new wave era. Jason McGerr had been installed as their new drummer, while tracks such as `The New Year’ and `The Sound Of Settling’ were indie faves in the UK where they were signed to Fierce Panda Records (former home to COLDPLAY).
Already in the can and with a name summing up the post-millennial craze for side-projects, The POSTAL SERVICE delivered the joint labours of Gibbard and DNTEL electro technician Jimmy Tamborello (with help from up-and-coming indie face Jenny Lewis – of RILO KILEY – and Jen Woods) for a one-off, Sub Pop-endorsed long-player, GIVE UP (2003) {*7}. Taking unashamedly 80s pointers from vintage VINCE CLARKE and PSB’s Chris Lowe, as well as spiritual support from “99 Luft Balloons” NENA, the snail-mail synth-poppers drew more attention than they bargained for: corporations Mars, Honda and insurance company Kaiser Permanente were sold on songs such as lead single `Such Great Heights’ (as covered by IRON & WINE) and future US minor hit `We Will Become Silhouettes’. Meanwhile the “real” US postal service were interested in the band for other, more litigious reasons, taking exception to the use of their moniker. A mutual agreement obviated any cash claims and left both parties free for future sorties, including the duo’s cover of The FLAMING LIPS’ `Suddenly Everything Has Changed’; a year later, the Wicker Park movie gave them an opportunity to re-tread PHIL COLLINS’ `Against All Odds’.
DCFC were back in circulation mid 2005 via a fresh contract with Atlantic Records and a less-controversial, more staid follow-up set, PLANS {*7}. Finally transcending many of their more obvious influences (and adding some new ones, imagine LENNON, say say say McCARTNEY), the album’s made to measure maturity was obvious from `Soul Meets Body’ and `Crooked Teeth’ (both minor hits in Britain), effortlessly buoying them into the Top 5 at home.
As previously mentioned, the character-driven NARROW STAIRS (2008) {*8} climbed the red carpet to the top of the charts; technicolor tracks such as `I Will Possess Your Heart’, `Talking Bird’ and `Cath…’ painting their own picture of everyday despair and anguish. Observing people from an open-plan doll’s house or mirroring his own transgressions, Gibbard was fast-becoming an indie poet for a growing legion of alt-rock fans.
Having scored the soundtrack to the Kurt Cobain “About A Son” movie with Steve Fisk in 2008, Benjamin’s free from DCFC set shared with JAY FARRAR arrived with the score for the documentary `One Fast Move Or I’m Gone: Music From Kerouac’s Big Sur’ (2009); this was mainly down to soundtrack specialist FARRAR and an addition to his SON VOLT work.
In reference to ENO’s “Another Green World” or OMD’s “Dazzle Ships” – certainly in some aspects on its production – DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE’s seventh set CODES AND KEYS (2011) {*7} was a move away from Gibbard’s self-effacing odes of woe. Married at this stage to SHE & HIM’s Zooey Deschanel (about to burst on to our TV screens as the “New Girl”), the emphasis on this record was mainly uplifting and optimistic. Melodic and almost cuddly, Ben fully explored his pop side on `Doors Unlocked And Open’, `You Are A Tourist’, `Home Is A Fire’, right up to the concluding `Stay Young, Go Dancing’. Pity then, that a year and a half on, the Zooey effect had dissipated along with his marriage.
In the throes and probably to rid his demons by way of a solo set, rather that intrude on his DCFC buddies, BENJAMIN GIBBARD thought it an appropriate time to part with FORMER LIVES (2012) {*6}, a potpourri of a record embracing alt-rock, alt-country and AIMEE MANN; the latter star featuring on `Bigger Than Love’. Inspired by C&W star STAN ROGERS and augmented by the Trio Elias, it was indeed mariachi time on `Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)’, while nostalgia was also part of `Dream Song’ and `Broken Yolk In Western Sky’.
Dispensing with Chris Walla as producer for the first time in years (his berth taken by Rich Costey), the stalwart guitarist announced his proposed departure as the recording of 2015’s KINTSUGI {*6} neared completion. Contrasting reviews led to relatively poor sales for the album’s second week in the charts, dropping as it did from No.8 to No.34!; its title stemming from the Japanese art of fixing broken poetry as therapy. The genteel Gibbard was lost somewhere in the fragility of `The Ghost Of Beverly Drive’, `No Room In Frame’ and `You’ve Haunted Me All My Life’, while his morose state came across like something akin to a downbeat MIKE SCOTT of The WATERBOYS. Taxi for Ben? – not yet, if the dreamy `Little Wanderer’ was anything to go by.
If dance-pop duo PET SHOP BOYS or folkies The WATERBOYS had inclinations in indie music, they’d have sounded decidedly DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE; arguably, at least on the strength of Gibbard and Co’s follow-on set, THANK YOU FOR TODAY (2018) {*8}. Chris Walla had now bailed, having announced it during their previous set, and he was replaced by Zac Rae (keyboards, guitar) and Dave Depper (guitars, keyboards, vocals). Not so long ago (exactly a decade), DCFC had topped the album charts, but with the ever-changing tides of alt-rock, their warm, melancholy appeal had dissipated somewhat to Top 20 status. Having said all that, the simmering and intricate flourishes a la the polished `I Dreamt We Spoke Again’, `Summer Years’, `Gold Rush’, `Your Hurricane’, `When We Drive’ et al, just kept casting their spell with each and every listen.
© MC Strong 2003-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2015-Sep2018

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