Death Cab for Cutie: You Can Play These Songs With Chords

Death Cab for Cutie
You Can Play These Songs With Chords

Once upon a time, in the sleepy little town of Bellingham, Washington, there existed a little pop band by the name of Pinwheel. They were really, really good, and played their hearts out night after night in crummy venues like the 3B Tavern and the Viking Union. Did I mention they were really, really good? So good that they prompted at least one forward-thinking critic (er . . . me, that is) to remark “Christ, if these guys don’t get signed . . . or break up . . . within a year, I’m gonna eat my hat”. It was the little caveat about breaking up that saved yours truly from having to chew on wool, as sometime in the year of ’97, the lads of Pinwheel sadly decided to go their separate ways. There was much grieving, of course, as must accompany the tragic demise of any well-loved college band. However, before Pinwheel actually bit the dust for good, there were murmurings from those in the know that singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard had something new up his sleeve. This was validated when Mr. Gibbard himself walked up to me at one of the last Pinwheel gigs and gave me a tape (which, if I still had it, I could probably make a small mint by selling it on eBay), saying “this is my new solo project. Check it out!”. A few months later, that very tape (in slightly altered form) was released by Elsinor Records as You Can Play These Songs With Chords.

At first, the Death Cab thing was just a solo project for Ben. However, the lure of the live stage soon called out to him, and he set about the task of assembling a live band. Happily, his good friend and bassist extraordinaire, Nick Harmer, had just parted company with his band, Shed (who went on to become Eureka Farm, and to clog budget bins across the Northwest with excess copies of their album The View), and Chris Walla had been recording the stuff all along, so who better to join up on second guitar? And a drummer? Well, there’s that guy Nathan. . . .

It may sound silly, but that’s pretty much how it all came about. The rest, as they say, is now history, what with the band’s indie mega-star status, European tours, and revolving-door drummer position (now freshly occupied by drummer number five, Jason McGerr, who, in an example of how everything always returns to its beginning at one point or another, was also once a member of Shed). So, fast-forwarding to the present, we find that the massive popularity of Death Cab’s last two records has prompted the good folks at Barsuk to release Death Cab’s embryonic recordings (most of which was found on that tape that Ben gave me, since lost to the sands of time), aided and abetted by a passel of “rare tracks and B-sides” that the band has amassed over the years.

The thing that’s likely to turn some people off from this release is the simple fact that a number of these songs are already available, in better recorded form, on Death Cab’s proper debut CD, 1999’s Something About Airplanes. Five of the eight songs that comprise the original You Can Play These Songs… were re-recorded and released on the album that introduced many fans to the Northwest’s brightest new indie band. However, those songs actually only comprise five of the eighteen tracks here, and the rest, while certainly variable in quality, are well worth hearing for the devoted Death Cab fan.

Understandably, the best tracks are those that were recorded slightly later in the band’s career, concomitant with their second release, 2000’s We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes. Among these, their sparkling cover of the Secret Stars’ “Wait” might be the best — a more tender, heartbreaking tune you’re not likely to hear this year. Similar in tone to Ida’s equally successful cover of the Secret Stars’ “Shoe In”, the song gleams with a simple majesty that few indie rock bands could hope to match. “Army Corps of Architects”, culled from an impossible-to-find Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch, is also a highlight. Chris Walla describes the song as “by far my favorite DCFC recording to date”, and while I might take issue with that statement, it’s still a great song that deserves to be heard by more than the 500 or so lucky slobs who got their hands on one of those Singles Club 7-inches.

Other songs are all over the map, ranging from the god-awful tape manipulation pastiche “Flustered/Hey Tomcat” and adenoidal singing that characterizes “TV Trays” to the languid “State Street Residental”, and Chris Walla’s turn at the mic on the upbeat, witty “New Candles”. There’s also a rousing cover of The Smiths’ “This Charming Man”, featuring Gibbard in full-on Mozzer imitation mode. The songs that were left off in the transition from Songs With Chords to Something About Airplanes aren’t exactly slouches either, with the punky “That’s Incentive” and the charmingly Beatlesque “Two Cars” (which features some of the most retardedly reverbed-out drum tracks you’ve ever heard) both being well worth hearing.

Considering the nature of this release, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not exactly the best place to start for the Death Cab newbie. While it’s probably intended for the Death Cab fan who has all the CDs, but can’t quite be bothered with all the 7-inches and other miscellaneous ephemera, there’s enough previously unreleased material here to make it a good bet even for those lucky slobs who’ve managed to get their paws on one of those Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inches. And no, really, I’m not jealous — not even slightly.

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