Music

Death Cab for Cutie: The Photo Album

Michael O'Brien

Death Cab for Cutie

The Photo Album

Label: Barsuk
US Release Date: 2001-10-09
Amazon
iTunes

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.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.