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Death Cab for Cutie

We have the facts and we're voting yes

Barsuk Records

 

Red House Painters and Bedhead -- two of my all-time favorite bands. And now Death Cab for Cutie finds its way onto that list. The common thread that binds all three is their gift for turning floating melodies, lilting vocals and echoing drums into intense battle fields of pounding angst and confusion, right under your nose.

The formula calls for building layers upon layers, so subtle that you don't notice them while you're unwittingly hypnotized by vocalist Ben Gibbard's yearning vocals.

When they're not floating Sunday-afternoon mathy melodies they're cracking Built to Spill-flavored pop songs through the ether (Gibbard's voice is cut from the same tonsillitic cloth as Mr. Martsch's, and Neil Young's). The BTS comparison is no more appropriate than on the straight-forward told-you-so relationship fable "For What Reason," and CD closer, "Scientist Studies," that goes from a bouncy indie melody -- complete with the requisite twanging guitar chimes -- to full-on power chords, ending with 30 seconds or so of feedback.

Repeated listenings uncover trends in the shimmering, transitional guitar lines -- related counter melodies seem to hang the whole package together. The rather obtuse lyrics also help in that regard. Opener "Title Track" starts rather low-fi before cranking into full surround stereo after the first verse -- tricky. Lyrics like "I tried my best to keep my distance from your dress but call-response overturns convictions every time," are offset by confusing, haiku-like stream-of-conscious phrases, such as "I rushed this/We moved too fast/And tripped into the guestroom."

There are exceptions, such as the chiming "405," with its fuzz-box vocals/guitar supplementing Gibbard's travel memory not so much of geography as much as the past, summed up: "Misguided by the 405 'cause it lead me to an alcoholic summer." The majestic "Company Calls Epilogue" seems the most straight forward: a simple wedding memory, until pictures of plastic wedding figures, pig-tailed girls running from little boys and beercans tied to bumpers are clouded by the confusion of bodies crashing through parlor doors.

You'd be left scratching your head at the meaning if you were paying attention, but you won't be because these songs are so lusciously beautiful that you won't notice the gibberish. Gibbard allows you to get just this close to understanding what's going on before he pulls the rug out from under your feet, again and again, leaving you alone with those exquisite sounds.


back torevhead.gif (1924 bytes)   Originally published in The Omaha Weekly April 27, 2000. Copyright 2000 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Rating: Yes