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.