Tuesday, April 21, 2009

12 by Death Cab for Cutie

Here's the drill: 12 songs to summarize an artist's career, in chronological order (of course).

I retired this feature last August, but decided to dust it off after a recently seeing Death Cab for Cutie in concert and coming away with a newfound appreciation for the quality of their catalog.

To be fair, Title & Registration, A Lack of Color, Summer Skin, Someday You Will Be Loved, Your Heart Is an Empty Room, and I Will Possess Your Heart probably all deserved spots as well.

1. President of What? (from Something About Airplanes, 1999)
The music is organ-driven, and a little-bit emoish (especially on the line "nothing hurts like nothing at all"). Gibbard's voice is not as strong as it would become (he sounds kind of like Peter Tork, but maybe that's in my head from listening to too many Monkees albums), but he makes some atypical melodic choices, providing a sketchy version of what the band would become.

2. The Employment Pages (from We Have the Facts and We are Voting Yes, 2000)
Now this is more like it. Take out that emoesque guitar and The Employment Pages could have appeared on their latest album. Great line: "We spread out and occupy the cracks in the urban streets / Idle now: I rearrange the furniture as you sleep"

Photobooth (from Forbidden Love EP, 2000)
Gibbard starts to earn his keep as a poet of nostalgic broken relationships: "And as the summer's ending / the cold air will rush your hard heart away."

4. Styrofoam Plates (from The Photo Album, 2001)
The music is fairly standard, but the lyrics are the real draw here. A son speaks at his absent alcoholic father's funeral: "You can deck out a lie in a suit / but I won't buy it / I won't join the procession that's speaking their piece, / using five dollar words while praising his integrity / Just 'cause he's gone, it doesn't change that fact: / he was bastard in life, thus a bastard in death yeah."

5. The New Year (from Transatlanticism, 2003)
This is where the band started to be worthy of the lyrics. The drums march, the guitars gallop. Another emo sentiment: "So this is the new year / and I don't feel any different."

6. Transatlanticism (from Transatlanticism, 2003)
A slow-burning epic that becomes a singalong plea by the end.

7. The Sound of Settling (from Transatlanticism, 2003)
"ba-ba, ba-bahhhhh"

8. Crooked Teeth (from Plans, 2005)
Gibbard followed the Michael Nesmith method of song-naming on this ode to mismatched romance. Instead of
calling it Nothing At All, after the chorus, the title comes from the awkward line: "At night the sun in the tree made the sky look like a man with crooked teeth who was devouring us both."

9. I Will Follow You Into the Dark (from Plans, 2005)
Maybe the song that will outlive us all. A promise to remain faithful beyond the grave seemed creepy to me when I first heard heard it. Now, it's heartbreaking and beautiful to me.

10. Soul Meets Body (from Plans, 2005)
Nearly four minutes of aural joy.

Cath... (from Narrow Stairs, 2008)
A mysterious wedding day tale. Our narrator tells the bride in so many words that he thinks she's marrying the wrong man. The groom is described as "well-intentioned" but there are also "so many men who would have loved [the bride] more." The traditional twist would be that the narrator wants her for himself, but instead he sympathizes with her belief that time was running out: "I would have done the same as you," he reveals at the end.

Grapevine Fires (from Narrow Stairs, 2008)
Gibbard paints a precise lyrical picture of watching California wildfires eat up the landscape while combating a feeling of impending doom. The pretty harmonies help sooth the nerves, but the ending is left appropriately vague. "The firemen worked in double shifts / with prayers for rain on their lips / they knew it was only a matter of time." Is it a matter of time before the fires go out or before we all burn?

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