Death Cab for Cutie

Indie pop quartet Death Cab for Cutie began in 1997 as the solo project of singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard, who previously recorded under the name All-Time Quarterback and was the other half of the Postal Service.

With his musical roots firmly planted in lo-fi, indie-electronica, his move to the more mainstream results in an intelligent, emotionally resonant, and guitar-driven indie-pop that is good enough for “The O.C.” soundtrack.

When I first saw Death Cab perform, I was at SummerStage in Central Park and they had top billing over Stars and The Decemberists. It was a tough gig in that the two previous acts were so phenomenal live, by the time Death Cab came on, I was fairly exhausted. They performed tracks from their almost, but not quite released, album Plans. Having not heard it yet, I was unequipped to bond with the songs fully and felt a bit lost. I think my main issue with the gig was that they seemed so popular, I felt cheated. I wanted them as my own secret band, and here they were appealing to young and old alike. 15-year-olds cutting school from New Jersey were here flocking in Seth Cohen-esque outfits and emo-inspired wrist cuffs and stencilled black boots. Yet there were also couples from Brooklyn, with children in strollers and toddlers, holding hands in appreciation, and singletons from the Upper East Side rubbing shoulders with the trendsters from Soho. The whole thing was a bit much for me, and I was almost ready to give up on the whole Death Cab thing. Overexposure is not pretty and neither is ubiquity in indie bands (if you want to pigeonhole them). This was all to change.

A few days later, I loaded the record onto my MP3 player and connected. This is their first album on Atlantic – having swapped over from tiny Seattle-based record label Barsuk – and it reflects a more developed, arguably more commercial sound. Despite this move into the public eye, my first impression was that it is, without doubt, their best sound to date. Forgetting about who listens to them, where they are played and how often you hear them on the WB was the best thing I could have done to give this album a chance.

Not only is the music similar to Transatlanticism, their well-received last album, but some of the lyrical themes are as well. The album features songs about lost love and death, but Plans is slightly more optimistic, dealing with aging, in “Brothers In A Hotel Room,” and with death beautifully, in “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” in a more positive light. The lyrics, “No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white / Just our hands clasped so tight / Waiting for the hint of a spark,” evoke a sense of acceptance and hope.

“I feel a lot more centred personally than I was for the majority of writing Transatlanticism,” says Gibbard, the lead singer. “I felt in the last couple years, maybe just being away more than ever, I found myself taking stock in the people around me in a way that I haven’t really before. I feel more optimistic expressions. In order to watch someone die you have to be around them for that long and to me that’s a pretty tender thought.”

“What Sarah Said” is an especially haunting number that features Gibbard alone on piano, with the lyrics “a place where we only say goodbye / It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on / a faulty camera in our minds.” Both lyrically and musically, it aches of heartbreak, culminating with “I’m thinking of what Sarah said / that Love is watching someone die.”"

The honest lyrics, acoustic set and a mildly experimental soft electronic sound creates a composition that blissfully complements Gibbard’s vocals. The underlying themes of loss and life are uplifting and subtle, leaving you positive despite the raw emotion in the songs. My experience with this album was personal and it remains a firm favourite because it manages to be so sensitively evocative. The album is intelligent, bittersweet and, simply put, great music.

The next time I saw them was a few months later at the Spin20 party at Webster Hall. The location, a mega-club, popular with out-of-towners doing trays of shots and dancing to grimy techno in all rooms, was transformed. It became an indie-friendly, yet dance-inducing atmosphere – Death Cab were sandwiched between Lady Sovereign and Run DMC – yet this juxtaposition worked. I found myself almost embarrassingly singing along to their set like some sort of Gibbard-obsessed groupie, grabbing my friend’s arm and jumping up and down when I heard the opening chords of “Marching Bands of Manhattan.” I almost collapsed when I heard the monumental final line, “Your Love is gonna drown.” The experience was perfect, and the new album just solidified my appreciation of them live. I am also perfectly willing to share them these days, and recommend them sincerely to anyone who wants to listen to my Death Cab rants. Listen, you will Love.

- Nicola Crockett