The Photo Album
By: Japanese Correspondent- Patrick Doherty
Sixteen months after the release of its sophomore effort, Death Cab For Cutie returns with an attempt to overhaul its sound somewhat, trading lofty experimentalism for more conventional songwriting techniques. Let"s be honest, though- these guys are still playing prog-rock, relying on long, drawn-out progressions and steady rhythms to form the foundations of their lackadaisical and melodic indie rock sound. Thankfully, though, they"ve ditched the pretentious post-production trickery that permeated We have The Facts And We"re Voting Yes.
Long-time fans of Death Cab For Cutie know exactly what I"m talking about. The band"s dreamy yet solemn tone has always been supported by traditional rock and roll structures, but showy changes would often creep in and derail the momentum too abruptly. For example, you"d be rocking out when all of sudden the same chord would be plucked for four minutes with no accompaniment whatsoever. That"s a good idea once – maybe – but the band has been known to run that trick into the ground, which is a sure-fire way to suck the rock right out of a song. Thankfully, some of those bad habits have been mitigated in Death Cab For Cutie"s latest release, The Photo Album. The sound of the album is more organic, focusing on rawer emotions while ignoring the temptation to cave into precision music making.
Not only is the sound more naturally soulful on The Photo Album, but also the lyrics are slightly more straightforward. Singer-songwriter Ben Gibbard"s past abstractness about cigarettes and freeways only hinted at emotional despondency. Now we are treated to the brutal honesty of tracks like "Styrofoam Plates": "You"re a disgrace to the concept of family/the Priest won"t divulge that fact in his homily and I"ll stand up and scream if the mourning remains quiet" it doesn"t change the fact: he was a bastard in life/thus a bastard in death." For those of you fearing that Gibbard has lost his poetic chops, there are plenty of times where he plays with the edges. "From A Movie Script Ending": "Passing through unconscious states/when I awoke I was on the highway/with your hands on my shoulders/a meaningless moment: a movie-script ending." And of course, for the hometown fans, there"s the obligatory anti-LA song that seems to be a feature on every indie record coming out of the Northwest these days.
Gibbard"s breathy vocal resignation remains the trademark of the band, though. Drifting in and out of falsetto along with the chord movements, he gives you the ready impression that you"re riding hand in hand with him on a roller coaster of gut-turning emotion. There"s even a song that might qualify as Stephin Merritt-esque ("Coney Island") with its faux-crooning over delicate percussion. Bands as good as Death Cab For Cutie tend to have singers who write music and play it, and the continuity between the music and vocals is no less apparent here than in any other Death Cab For Cutie album. In fact, it"s vastly improved.
The most noteworthy aspect of The Photo Album is the band"s upward trajectory. The music is cohesive and even, though still somewhat sluggish. And consequently, Barsuk and the band appear to be pinning a good bit of hope on this album"s mainstream success, making it the subject of an intense media and promotional blitz (there is even a full-on installation for Death Cab For Cutie at the seven-story Tower Records in Tokyo, Japan). But the good news for fans of the band"s early style is that it has managed to retain its essence, while casting away that which might have stood in the way of broader acceptance.