Death Cab for Cutie's songs live in a tiny, claustrophobic, brilliant space. Every sound matters. Ben Gibbard massages every word he sings, exacting the maximum poignancy from each syllable. Last year's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes was a subtle, understated master work; an indie-pop album obsessed with the road and the girl that got away.
The Photo Album finds Gibbard's lyrics still saturated with travelling references, no doubt due to the band's near constant touring schedule over the past few years. Sonically, comparisons to fellow Washington band Built to Spill are not too far off, but Death Cab for Cutie's songs are much less of a guitar playground than Built to Spill's. They are driven by rhythm and kissed with endearingly repetitive, simple riffs. Doug Martsch's lyrics often come off as randomly pasted-on, abstract thoughts, while Death Cab's songs are carefully constructed around Gibbard's ruminations.
On The Photo Album, Death Cab for Cutie has beefed up the sound. The production is clearer; gone is the static, hazy spell band member/producer Chris Walla created on the first two albums. The Photo Album proves last year's Forbidden Love EP was a teaser for Death Cab's future and not an interesting sidestep. The exceptional beats and rhythms that have always lain underneath Death Cab for Cutie's songs are now stronger and cleaner. The result is less of the understated charm that fans first fell in love with. In its place is a more polished, professional sound. They've returned to the more uptempo style of their debut album, Something About Airplanes, this time adding what the liner notes refer to as "dirty guitar". It's a much more in your face approach.
The album kicks off, however, with "Steadier Footing", the sparsest track. Gibbard sings "It's gotten late and now I want to be alone", seemingly picking up where the previous album left off. "A Movie Script Ending" immediately follows, thrusting the record into high gear, taking us back on the road, peering through the windows of bars, tossing, turning and trying to get some sleep on the highway.
"We Laugh Indoors" is the first true showcase of the band's new approach. Drummer Michael Schorr opens the song with a quick, pounding beat. Chris Walla's guitar eventually joins in, snaking playfully around the beat. Gibbard's spoken vocals soon fall in between; by the chorus, he's chanting "I loved you Guenivere, I loved you Guenivere" as if it's a personal mantra. After the second chorus Walla and Gibbard's guitars attack each other, Schorr ups the tempo and Death Cab for Cutie unleash their full force.
The album's only misstep is the eighth track, "Styrofoam Plates". Schorr's drumming is uncharacteristically dull and Gibbard's ultra-personal lyrics come off as immature grade-school diary writing. It threatens to break the seductive spell the band has spent most of the album luring the listener into. Thankfully, the drum machine and piano on "Coney Island" meld with Gibbard's ethereal singing to set things right again.
Try to pick up the bonus double-disc version of the album. The second disc only has three tracks on it, but one of them is a superb cover of Bjork's "All Is Full of Love". The other two songs, "20th Century Towers" and "Stability" are long, hazy tracks that recapture the overall mood of We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.
The Photo Album should help expand Death Cab for Cutie's already burgeoning fanbase, but it isn't the record that will put them on the cover of independent rock magazines. Most likely, it's the transition record in between.