Like an old friend, Death Cab for Cutie's debut album is still every bit as warm, inviting, and lovable as it was ten years ago. Those already familiar with its charms, however, will find relatively little of interest in this two-disc, deluxe reissue.
One fall day, during the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, a particularly hip friend from the West Coast asked if I wanted to go see a band called Death Cab for Cutie with her. Upon responding that I had never heard of them, she gingerly dropped a burned CD-R onto my desk. Scribbled on the surface of the disc in black permanent marker was the following: "SOMETHING ABOUT AIRPLANES". Spinning the album in my dorm room some hours later, the first sound I heard was a mournful chord being dragged slowly across the strings of a cello. Funny, I thought, this is hardly what I expected from a band with such a menacing name.
I'd like to say that I instantly fell in love with Something About Airplanes, but that would be a lie. It took multiple listens and seeing the band live for the melodies to finally sink their teeth in. But once firmly planted, the ten songs that make up Death Cab's first LP proved hard to shake. The end result? A nearly decade-long love affair with Death Cab for Cutie, and particularly with Something About Airplanes, the rough-hewn debut that, to this day, remains my firm favorite in the band's increasingly polished catalog.
At this point, I think it's safe to say that most Death Cab for Cutie fans first encountered the band at a markedly different stage in their development. The unexpected crossover hit Transatlanticism, its major-label follow-up Plans and the recent chart-topper Narrow Stairs exhibit a band confident in its sound and abilities, a well-oiled, indie-pop song writing machine. Something About Airplanes, by way of comparison, is an awkward, ramshackle affair. Its four architects -- students from the college town of Bellingham, Washington -- lacked the self-consciousness that comes with hindsight. As a result, the record that they produced brims with both youthful energy and amateurish charm, and wears its influences -- Built to Spill, Guided by Voices, Bedhead -- proudly on its sleeve. Something About Airplanes is not a perfect record by any stretch of the imagination. But I submit that if you really want to understand Death Cab for Cutie, there's no better place to start.
While Death Cab was unquestionably a very different band 10 years ago, it's remarkable how little their core aesthetic has changed over the years. Opener "Bend to Squares", for example, offers a crash-course in the Ben Gibbard school of lyricism. Its opening lines ("Gravitated towards a taste / For foreign films and modern plays") are evocative, melancholic, and grammatically perfect. As with most of Gibbard's constructions, the sentiment here is vague enough to appear poetic yet straightforward enough to be immediately relatable, at least to any young person possessed by a similar temperament.
"President of What?" displays Gibbard's knack for pop songwriting, its keyboard and power chord-driven melody bouncing along easily as its lyrics hint at an underlying sense of dread. Sure, the pinch harmonics and vocal sample near the three minute mark sound a bit dated 10 years on, but that fact hardly detracts from the song's charm. The deliberately paced, mildly disorienting "Champagne from a Paper Cup", meanwhile, opens with one of the most bitingly dark lines in the Death Cab catalog ("I think I'm drunk enough to drive you home now"), a line that foreshadows later songs like "Tiny Vessels" (how Gibbard managed to write that one and maintain his reputation as the nicest guy in indie rock, I'll never know).
Of all the songs on Airplanes, "Pictures in an Exhibition" comes the closest to offering the listener a hint at what Death Cab would eventually become. All meaty hooks, propulsive drums, and sing-a-long choruses, the song is as catchy and accessible as the tunes that would later propel the band to stardom. The drawn-out, slow build of "Line of Best Fit", meanwhile, draws the blueprint for latter day fan favorites like "Transatlanticism" and "I Will Possess Your Heart".
While there's little question as to whether Something About Airplanes laid the foundation for the band's sound, some of the ideas explored within turned out to lead toward dead ends. Nowadays, it's difficult to imagine the band performing a song like "The Face That Launched 1000 Shits" -- a cover of a Revolutionary Hydra song that mistakes sophomoric humor for clever wordplay. "Amputations" and "Fake Frowns" stick out like sore thumbs in the Death Cab catalog, favoring distorted guitars, driving rhythms, and in the case of the latter, urgent pacing over the more restrained approach taken on the album's eight other tracks. While Death Cab would rarely revisit these techniques on future releases, "Amputations" and "Fake Frowns" still stand out as two of the stronger songs penned during the band's early years.
If you consider yourself a Death Cab fan and have yet to hear Something About Airplanes, consider this deluxe reissue a mandatory purchase. Not only does it offer an invaluable bit of context within which to frame the rest of the band's output, it also stands on its own as an excellent, if imperfect album from one of the last decade's defining indie pop acts. If you're like me and already own a well-worn copy of Something About Airplanes, however, the question of whether or not to buy becomes a bit more difficult to answer.
Disc 1 of the double disc set presents the listener with the album in its original, unaltered form. While it preserves guitarist Chris Walla's delightful, lo-fi production, it's also digitally identical to the disc that you already own. Given the nature of the album's sound, it's not surprising that the band chose to forego any sort of remastering, as its likely that such a cleanup job would only detract from the record's considerable charm. Still, this fact doesn't do much to bolster the value proposition for a release that many fans likely already have on the shelf.
Disc 2 features a recording of a show the band played at Seattle's Crocodile Café in February of 1998, a full six months before the release of Something About Airplanes and, reportedly, the third show the band had played at that point. Given the early nature of this show, it's hard to believe how fully formed most of these songs sound; as a matter of fact, the vast majority of the songs as heard in the live setting are virtually identical to their album counterparts. Sure, there are a few mistakes to be found -- Walla botches the aforementioned pinch harmonics in "President of What?", for example -- but for the most part, this recording bears the markings of the fastidiousness and professionalism that would become the band's calling card.
Apart from the Something About Airplanes tracks, there are also a few interesting oddities to be found here. A cover of the Smiths' "Sweet and Tender Hooligan" featuring Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson on vocals is especially notable; the band sounds surprisingly tight considering the song's brisk pace and Nelson, while no Morrissey, fares better than Gibbard when trying to fill the Pope of Mope's shoes (see Death Cab's cover of "This Charming Man"). Non-album b-side "State Street Residential" also makes an early appearance, sounding a bit more hurried than it would in later incarnations.
The second disc, while an interesting historical document, ultimately serves as little more than a curious snapshot of a band coming to terms with its own talents. It would have been nice if this disc was padded out with a bit more substance, though its easy to understand why it's not: You Can Play These Songs With Chords, a 2002 reissue of Death Cab's first demo tape, already mined the band's vaults with great success.
Likewise, the reissue's packaging is nice enough, though it does little to justify the album's re-release. Essentially a miniature clone of the LP's packaging (that is to say, a blue cardboard sleeve encasing the now famous rowboat sketch, which hides behind a sheet of opaque vellum), it also features a thoughtful, seven page essay from the aforementioned Sean Nelson.
While these little extras will certainly please first time buyers, this version of Something About Airplanes will prove a tough sell to longtime fans, especially considering how high the reissue bar has been raised in recent years (most notably by Matador's excellent Pavement reissues). As much as I love Something About Airplanes, it's hard to recommend this limited edition reissue to all but the most fervent Death Cab for Cutie fans. For those of you who have yet to pick up the album, however, this reissue provides you with the perfect excuse. As dressed up as it might now be, ten years later, Something About Airplanes still retains all the charm of a lovingly handmade CD-R.