hen contemplating indie profligacy, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is a name that rarely, if ever, comes to mind. Bob Pollard, of course. Stephen Merritt, sure. But surely not Gibbard. It didn’t even occur to me either until I realized that this was the fourth review of his that I’ve penned for this site in the past six or seven months, and that makes four out of five in the past year.
Whether he’s tossing off EPs or rarities comps under the Death Cab guise, reissuing old solo recordings under the misleadingly brawny All-Time Quarterback moniker, or lending his presence to a remix EP that informs the rest of this piece, he’s been quietly commanding. But in ‘quiet’ lies the problem: none of the records mentioned above ascended beyond amiability. The melodies were strong, the singing often times stunning, but nothing within stood up as anything but shelf-candy whose presence in the stereo is as evanescent as the content grin that followed the announcement of its release. But man, can Ben Gibbard ever craft a song.
Tracks like “Photobooth”, “Company Calls Epilogue”, “A Movie Script Ending”, “Amputations”, and, of course 2001’s “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”, the collaboration with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello that spurred this project on, are sublime vignettes of lovelorn trepidation that pack seemingly bottomless wallops of wistful pop. Gibbard possesses the ability to bring awkward moods and seamless craft together in parallel bursts of greatness that make any surfeit of material justifiable. With the exception of the indie rock that Gibbard so naturally traffics in, no genre is better suited to this ungainly mix than dance pop. And, with a decidedly modern edge, that is what this record essentially offers. While a glitchy effusion of IDM cutting and discotheque boom-chikking may sound like freshly manicured fingernails on a pink chalkboard to some, it works as well as it ever will on this record.
After the success that trailed after their aforementioned alliance on Tamborello’s Life Is Full of Possibilities, the two musicians decided to extend their efforts into a full-length album not in a studio, but via mail-delivered tracks, a method that inspired their name. While that unseemly ethic might add a tempting allure to the proceedings, the geographical separation isn’t the least bit evident. The same sense of enjoyment and experimentation that was so deeply imbued into “Evan and Chan” is palpable throughout the Postal Service’s debut (and probable swan song), Give Up. And although the wondrous elation that emanated from that song’s sonorous air of accomplishment couldn’t possibly be recreated here, the fine stylistic resonance most certainly is.
Predominantly educated by genre luminaries like Human League, Spandau Ballet, and Pet Shop Boys, but also owing debt to the 6ths and Magnetic Fields, Give Up thankfully eschews the occasionally inexpressive meddling that marred the work of many of the scene’s forbearers. Indeed, by necessity, Gibbard’s voice is in full swing throughout the record, compensating for its well-defined limitations with a compartmentalized sense of expression that makes even the slightest of melodies sound unerringly profound, even in light of some highly questionable lyricism that nevertheless adheres mostly to Gibbard’s previous writing. More excitingly, the balance of power is distributed equally here like it never was on the vocal-intensive “Evan and Chan.” The wash of strings and heavenly synth tones that Tamborello brings to the fold ultimately make the album the winner that it is. This is never more apparent than on the fantastic “Clark Gable”, where Gibbard’s cooing is underscored by a mountain of synthesized horns and gently enormous strings that make way for a skittering snare drum, handclaps, and manipulated vocal flutters, all underneath the ubiquitous bass thump that is all but essential for these songs.
“Sleeping In”, “Such Great Heights”, and “Nothing Better”, find the record at its most playful, fortunately reiterating that it is indeed a work to be enjoyed above all else. When Jen Wood’s verse on the latter kicks in with a sunburst of “Hallelujah” strings, you’ll know it. It’s something that will be stressed incessantly throughout the remainder of the album, on songs like the tranquil (and even uplifting) “Recycled Air” and “The District Sleeps Along Tonight”, where Gibbard almost whispers through a pillow of weaving electronic textures, as well as on “We Become Silhouettes”, a song the world would’ve killed for during the early-90s Europop invasion.
Never once during the course of the album’s ten songs, do its creators even graze the surface of mediocrity, instead settling in the sunny middle ground that Gibbard so often inhabits. No one asked, nor expected, Gibbard and Tamborello to make The Great Modern Synth-pop Album; in fact, the record often times feels more like a gift to those who clamored so hard for its release in their geeky pipe dreams. These dreams rarely come true, but when they do, it’s hard to feel let down. And when it actually turns out well, even in the face of flaws that could sink others, it feels like heaven on earth.
Reviewed by: Colin McElligatt
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01