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October 10, 2001
From their sold out performances across North America, to downloadable acoustic fun on SPIN.com and a full-sized feature article in this month's issue of the College Music Journal (not to mention their current dominance of college radio), you would be hard pressed to find someone who cares an ounce about music today that has not heard of Death Cab For Cutie. Of course these days the same can be said for a "band" like O-Town. Luckily, though, Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer, and Michael Schorr, the nice and clean-cut boys that make up Death Cab For Cutie (or Death Cab, as they are affectionately known), side step the boy-band pitfalls, and with the recently released The Photo Album, they tread even closer to the depths perpetrated by the likes of rock and roll greats such as the Beatles, who are of course the only boy-band that has ever mattered anyhow.

Death Cab's maturation, from the simple 4-track beginnings of guitarist/vocalist Ben Gibbard to full-blown moody rock diamonds, has catapulted the band into the foreground of the new indie-rock evolution. Combining the sweet and sour elements of the Beatles, Elliott Smith, Superchunk, and Built to Spill, Death Cab's five-album output is one of the most evolving and exciting catalogues this side of Radiohead. Whether sampling the spirited 8-track glory of "Amputations", from Something About Airplanes, the bouncy Casio-laced nostalgia of "Photobooth" from the Forbidden Love EP, or the poison-tongued precision of "For What Reason" on We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, it is easy to see that the boys from Bellingham know a thing or two about writing a great pop-song.

Finally, with the completion of The Photo Album, Death Cab have found a way to combine their spit and sweat filled live show with their more modest and introspective album output, heard on songs like "Why Would You Want to Live Here" and "I Was a Kaleidoscope." The ever jovial and humble Gibbard attributed the supposed change not to a renewed interest in Nirvana, but to simple proximity. "I think between sharing a practice space with Juno and making friends with Kind of Like Spitting, I pinched a couple ideas from them," Gibbard explained.

With the addition of new drummer Schorr, The Photo Album finds Death Cab in a more comfortable and confident place, one where they are feeling like more of a band than ever before. "Michael's amazing. He's really gelled with the rest of us over the last few years and recording the record with such a great drummer gave the whole thing a more confident feel," said Gibbard of Schorr's addition. Have a listen to "Styrofoam Plates" or "Information Travels Faster," and Gibbard's words couldn't hold truer.


Though the change in song is not all that drastic, the change in sound is one of the first noticeable mutations while traveling through the open and sunny fields of The Photo Album. Instead of recording at home or in various practice spaces, Death Cab finally treated themselves to their own version of Christmas in July, recording the album this past summer in the newly relocated Hall of Justice Studios in Seattle. The studio, where some say grunge was born (usually followed by a smirk, a chuckle, and then a realization that it's true), gave Death Cab a new palette to draw inspiration from, not to mention fewer bruises.

"It was great to finally have a designated recording space to work in. Doing the home/basement recording thing is great, but you run the risk of having projects run too long, not to mention that it's unhealthy to not leave the house for weeks if you happen to be recording in your house. I think our sanity was saved by being able to go home after a session, rather that tripping over cords on the living room floor like in the past."

Once again, guitarist and all around Converse All-Star enthusiast Walla was at the helm of the sessions, something that out and out defines the sound of Death Cab's recorded work. Gibbard commented on the pros and cons of having Walla behind the boards, saying that "The positives are obvious: he doesn't let anything slip, so you end up with a tight, well-arranged record at the end of the day. As far as negatives go, I think Chris's perfectionist tendencies are gonna' give him a heart attack some day! No, we all have a lot of faith in his calls, so if he says do something over again, we may fight it initially, but we know it's gonna' be for the best."

The final product is a concise and jarring affair, with every aspect of the Death Cab sound amplified and pushed to its capacity. The guitars brilliantly dance around tactfully placed piano and keyboard nuances and one of the most solid rhythm sections in rock, atop which Gibbard unravels tales that touch on subjects beyond the typical boy meets girl emo bullshit.

And if making a great record and touring the country once already isn't enough, Death Cab will be hitting the road again in the spring, along with art-pop spazzes the Dismemberment Plan, for what has been dubbed the Death and Dismemberment Tour. Gibbard said, "We're gonna' be out for 5 weeks and I can't wait. They're one of my favorite bands and I consider them our east-coast analogs: they're great kids and we share a lot of the same philosophies as to how music should be."

It would be fair to say, then, that in fact the way music should be is the way Death Cab For Cutie has been operating for the last 5 years, by sticking to their guns, dodging larger label offers and sticking with their friends at Barsuk, or working up to recording in "the big studio" rather than sinking all their funds down the drain right out of the gate. They are consistently on the road with not only big name acts like the Dismemberment Plan, but take out lesser-known friends like the Prom and Aveo. Oh, and recording and self-producing five shimmering and majestic pop records has helped a bit as well.

In a time when indie rock bands look more like Urban Outfitters and Abercrombie and Fitch models, Death Cab For Cutie are the kind of grass-roots, hooded zip-up sweat-shirt and beanie type of band that have arrived as a Superchunk or Sebadoh for a younger generation, something that is still so desperately needed in rock today.

SEE ALSO: www.deathcabforcutie.com
SEE ALSO: www.barsuk.com

--
Ryan Allen
A former staff writer with fabulous hair, Ryan Allen once fronted Red Shirt Brigade with his brother, Scott. He currently fronts the art/fashion punk band Thunderbirds Are Now!, with is brother, Scott.

See other articles by Ryan Allen.

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