Fifteen years after Seattle launched the alt-rock revolution, the Pacific Northwest remains the locus for non-mainstream music, exerting a powerful grip on the pop-cultural imagination.
One of the musical and commercial mainstays of this scene is Death Cab for Cutie, a foursome from Bellingham, Washington, who've made four well-received albums for Seattle-based Barsuk Records as well as a lauded major-label debut last year. This might be the most well-connected group around: guitarist Chris Walla, when he's not working on his own solo material (an album is rumored to be scheduled for 2007), is an accomplished producer who has worked on albums for Rilo Kiley, the Decemberists, Nada Surf, and Hot Hot Heat.
Death Cab singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard cameoed on Rilo Kiley frontwoman Jenny Lewis' solo debut earlier this year, singing on her cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care." Oh yeah, Gibbard's also part of a little glitch-pop group called the Postal Service. You might have heard of them: Their debut, Give Up, is the best-selling title in Sub Pop Records' history, beating out the Shins and even Nirvana.
Despite their roots in the Pacific Northwest, Death Cab are perhaps more closely associated with the more southerly climes of The OC. In its first-season heyday, when viewers were enthralled by the beach-set soap opera, Adam Brody's character name-dropped the band repeatedly, and they contributed a song to one of the show's six soundtrack albums. That endorsement helped launch the band: Plans, its 2005 Atlantic Records debut, and the first since The OC premiered, sold 90,000 copies in its first week to debut at #4 on the Billboard albums chart.
On the other hand, this mainstream exposure also placed Death Cab in the loose subgenre called (for lack of a better term) "yuppie indie," a pejorative label that's been slapped on the Shins, Snow Patrol, Sufjan Stevens, and any artist who's appeared on a Zach Braff soundtrack. Musically, Death Cab might be a round peg in that category's round hole: Their sound is indie-pop pleasant, with no blazing guitars, retro synths, or live spontaneity. Sonically, they're about as unobtrusive as you could get, favoring slow-building songs with lilting pop hooks and soaring codas.
They're a studio band, guided as much by Walla's production as by Gibbard's songwriting, and yet, beneath the pleasant sheen lurks a subtle, yet accomplished, complexity. On "Different Names for the Same Thing," the centerpiece on Plans, the instruments relate to one another intricately: Jason McGerr's drums play a central role, anchoring the song as the keyboards and vocal melodies swirl around it. The effect is similar to that created by the Postal Service, creating that same cog-and-gear sound but with more instruments.
Remarkably, despite the "yuppie indie" tag, Death Cab have found a young -- and fervent -- audience that engages very personally with the music. That's not surprising considering Gibbard's idiosyncratic, heart-on-sleeve lyrics. He writes for the sensitive misfits hanging around the back of the school theater, good students despite themselves. Gibbard's lyrics have the weighty gravity of verse scrawled in homework margins, amplifying everyday confusions into mountainous emotions, yet he revels in the possibilities of high school poetry. His lyrics tend toward romantically whimsical imagery while remaining grounded in the emotional realities of loss and death.
All five of Death Cab's full-lengths are dense with deliberately chosen concrete details ("I could taste your lipstick on the filter," he sings on "Title Track," from 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes) and precocious wordplay (on "I Will Follow You into the Dark," from Plans, he wonders what would happen "if heaven and hell decide that they both are satisfied/and illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs").
That imagery marks everything Death Cab has recorded, reaching a peak on 2003's Transatlanticism, generally considered their best, but growing a little too precious and forced on Plans. The album begins with "Marching Bands of Manhattan," in which Gibbard sings this strained couplet: "If I could open my mouth wide enough for a marching band to march out/They would make your name sing and bend through alleys and bounce off all the buildings."
At times Gibbard's songwriting sounds simply disingenuous, as on "What Sarah Said." He describes a scene in a hospital waiting room, recounting all the obvious details like "vending machines and year-old magazines" and dispensing pseudo-wisdom. All of this is in service to a limp coda: "I'm thinking of what Sarah said: That 'love is watching someone die.'"
The song is cheap melodrama, with a hint of self-absorption, and, in 2005, it was outshined by Sufjan Stevens' similar, but better, "Casimir Pulaski Day," which describes the same scene with more sensitive attention to details and narrative. Still, it's intriguing and admirable that Death Cab have managed to achieve this level of success, which is extremely rare for any indie band, not by diluting their idiosyncrasies but by emphasizing them.