Monday, December 29, 2014

Fleet Foxes - Sun Giant EP (2008)

Best Song: Mykonos


Robin Pecknold – Lead Vocals, Guitar, Songwriting
Skyler Skjelset – Lead Guitar, Mandolin, Vocals
Casey Wescott – Piano, Keyboards, Vocals
Christian Wargo – Bass, Vocals
Nicholas Peterson – Drums, Vocals


Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about good modern folk.

Fleet Foxes burst onto the national music scene in 2008, after becoming much beloved critical sensations in their hometown of Seattle. Their locally produced limited run debut EP, released in 2006, is sadly out of print, but a few months before becoming indie darlings with their debut LP, they released the Sun Giant EP, so let's start there.

Sun Giant is the perfect starting point, since it showcases virtually all of their strengths. While I don't think it's totally fair to say that Robin Pecknold is Fleet Foxes, he is the sole songwriter and lead singer for all of their songs. It's essentially Fairport Convention style folk rock with gorgeous Beach Boys-esque harmonies. Acoustic guitars and harmonies typically dominate the mix, with the occasional jangly or sharp electric guitar crashing in, usually at climactic or tension building/releasing moments. The only sign that Fleet Foxes are from the 2000's are some of the guitar tones employed occasionally.

The only thing holding Sun Giant back is its short length, because the material is pretty universally fantastic. The opening mostly a capella title track immediately showcases their remarkably beautiful harmonies, and the following “Drops in the River” and “English House” are great, hooky, lush folk rock. “Mykonos” is the main reason to own this EP, as it might possibly be the best song they ever did. It's the first truly epic track in the Fleet Foxes canon, with a great verse and chorus melody building up the tension to be released in the battle charge sounded by the “Brother, you don't need to turn me away” section. The closing “Innocent Son” is probably the weakest track, as it's a bit too mellow without being as pretty as the other material, but it's still quite genial and pleasant.

All in all, this is a very promising start to Fleet Foxes' musical career, and I don't see why lovers of 60's and 70's folk rock, or classic pop/rock in general, wouldn't greatly enjoy this. If you already own and enjoy Fleet Foxes' debut and haven't bothered exploring the band past that – which is the case for many people – this is essentially more of the same. If you haven't bothered getting into them at all, there's nothing wrong with starting here.

Rating: 11/15

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Bon Iver - Bon Iver (2011)

Best Song: Holocene

Credit where credit is due – the self-titled is not a retread of For Emma. Justin Vernon recruited bandmates and turned Bon Iver into an actual band. For better or worse, they predictably went in a folk-pop direction, but unpredictably decided to produce Bon Iver to sound more or less like 80's adult contemporary music. You can call it whatever you want, but it definitely qualifies as artistic...movement. I don't know if “progression” is entirely the right word.

It's also terrible. Bon Iver doesn't suck like For Emma did – it sucks in new and interesting ways. The songwriting and production decisions here mean the sound is much more varied and less monotonous than on the debut, but it also means that half the songs make me want to vomit, as they're drenched in 80's puke-synths, reverb, and frighteningly generic saxophone sections. These sections and songs are uncomfortably married with banjos, pedal steel, and slide guitar, forming a fusion created in the bowels of hell by Satan himself, who gave it to Bon Iver, because even he's not cruel enough to unleash it upon the world. I've never heard an album quite like this one, and I hope that I never do again.

It's shockingly not all bad. When they cut down on the horrible keyboards and saxes, some beauty does occasionally come through. There's even a song I like on here! “Holocene” is actually both quite beautiful and quite memorable. Of course, it goes on too long, because God forbid there be something from the mind of Justin Vernon I can enjoy without criticizing, but it's enjoyable, and that nagging acoustic guitar line and lovely “I can see for miles, miles, miles” refrain are alright in my book.

There are a few more songs that are decent, so let's talk about them as well before we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I'm actually ok with the opening “Perth” - it's not as beautiful as it thinks it is, and Justin Vernon's falsetto is still annoying, but I like the slide guitar and the martial rhythms, so while I'll never listen to it again, it can stick around. “Towers” is an altogether decent, unadorned folk-pop song that sounds like a lesser Fleet Foxes number or something, if Robin Pecknold inhaled a bunch of helium.

“Minnesota, WI” has that nice “never gonna break” refrain, and the rest doesn't offend me, although it's not very memorable. And finally, “Calgary” starts off like I'm going to hate it, with those ear-bleeding synths kicking things off, but they go away pretty quickly, and there's nice buildup of tension followed by the song circling back around to the beginning, but with guitars playing the part the keyboards played. That's quite psychologically satisfying.

The rest is some of the most offensively bad material I've ever had the displeasure of hearing. “Michicant” starts off alright, but then the generic adult-contemporary synths and the squishy drum sound kick in, and by the time the inevitable sax part comes along, I'm ready to hurl. It's like a slow build up of horror, but completely unintentional. The following “Hinnom, TX” is so drenched in reverb, I'm not even sure what I'm supposed to be listening to, but I can tell you that every solitary second of it sounds gross. “Wash” appears to be some sort of social experiment in how long the average person can listen to the same two piano notes repeated over and over again before indicting Bon Iver for breach of social contract, and “Lisbon, OH” is a 90 second synth instrumental that's just as bad as it sounds.

Ok, what in the actual fuck is “Beth/Rest”?! No, seriously, what am I hearing?? It''s like, layers of 80's puke synths that somehow sound worse than all of the others on the album. On top of all of this is Justin Vernon's voice auto-tuned (?!) to sound like a God damn robot. And, if that wasn't enough, a saxophone arrangement that would make even Kenny G vomit in disgust. And it's 5 minutes long. Am I being trolled? Is Bon Iver trolling me? Because “Beth/Rest” is so offensively horrible, it's almost funny. Almost. This is by far the worst song in my entire collection, and might very well be the worst song I've ever heard in my life. I'm not even using hyperbole here – I legitimately cannot think of a worse song, and I've heard a lot of music. Oh, and fuck you to the guy on Youtube who pointed out that “Beth/Rest” kind of sounds like the Super Mario 64 Underwater theme. Now I can basically never play one of my favorite games ever again.

...Ok, that time I was using hyperbole.

Honestly, “Beth/Rest” leaves such a bad taste in my mouth, I'm tempted to give Bon Iver the worst possible grade just on principle, but that wouldn't really be fair. I guess. So “Holocene” is a pretty good song, and a couple of the others are kinda halfway decent, but the album on the whole is just such a bad combination of ideas, it ends up being incredibly disgusting, and I feel like I need a shower just from hearing it. I used to like it better than For Emma for the good material at the beginning, but I don't know anymore. It's an album that's only gotten worse every time I've listened to it. The “pretty good”ness of “Holocene” and the inoffensiveness of some other tracks is nowhere near enough to counterbalance the bad material, including the worst damn song ever written. I don't know what to do with this, so I'll just go with my gut. Get “Holocene” if you want to hear the only good Bon Iver song. You know what to do with the rest.

Rating: 5/15

Monday, December 22, 2014

Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (2007)

Best Song: ehn, Creature Fear maybe

There's a lot of great indie-folk out there. I'm a big fan of Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, Iron & Wine, The Tallest Man on Earth...these are some of my favorite artists of the 21st century. And yet, out of the huge pool of talented folk artists out there, somehow it was this guy who won two grammies.

Everybody likes to talk about the back story to For Emma, so here we go. Justin Vernon's girlfriend left him and his band broke up, and then, at his darkest hour, he secluded himself in a cabin in Wisconsin and poured out all of his feelings into music and recorded this album. It's a portrait of all of his pain and heartache and everything he was feeling at the time, a classic romantic story of art from adversity, blah, blah, blah...and that's why we're supposed to love this album and this guy. Listen, it's a true stereotype that often great art comes from heartache and trouble, but in order for that truism to be in effect, you have to already have talent. Otherwise, all you produce is music that's both awful and obnoxiously self aggrandizing.

Most of the songs are little more than acoustic guitar and vocals, which wouldn't bother me if they were any good. Oh, let's talk about those vocals. Justin Vernon sings primarily in falsetto, and it really doesn't sound good at all. He just doesn't have an appealing falsetto, and it's very grating. Singing almost exclusively in falsetto very rarely works, and if you're considering it, you need to ask yourself a question – are you Wayne Coyne? If the answer is “No,” save the falsetto for when it's needed.

I could deal with the falsetto if there was anything to these songs, but there isn't. It's just some annoying dude screeching his personal problems over folk chord sequences that were played out sometime in 1964. For some reason I can't fathom, everybody loves “Skinny Love” - I hear it at every coffee shop I go to, and a lot of my friends whose only exposure to Bon Iver is that song really like it. He drops the falsetto at least, for part of the song, but the wannabe cathartic chorus is just obnoxious, and I couldn't tell you a thing about the rest of the song.

Every other track just blends together into a glob of acoustic nothingness, held together only by “heart.” Listen up, Ma-Ti, I feel for you, honestly. I believe that this was a hard time in your life, and if creating this album helped you get through it and recover, that's great, seriously. But music isn't good just because it's sincere and emotional. Those are factors that can make music that's already good better.

I'll try and find some nice things to say about For Emma. It doesn't sound awful – I mean, it's mostly acoustic folk music, it's kind of hard to screw that up soundwise, so I can have it playing in the background and not be horrified or anything. It's mercifully short, at only 37 minutes. I guess the chorus to “Creature Fear” is alright, with the only nice melodic turn on the whole album. And I kind of like the little slide guitar touches in the title track, although the backbone of the song is as underwritten as anything on here.

However, sounding inoffensive doesn't mean the album is inoffensive. It's almost completely devoid of any interesting musical ideas, and Justin Vernon shoving his bleeding heart in my face makes the album irritating instead of just boring. It's hard for me to believe that a short folk album could be so offensive to my tastes, but not as hard as it is for me to believe that For Emma somehow has a metacritic score of 88. The only reasons it's not getting a lower score from me are that I have certainly heard worse, and it sounds organic and it won't make your ears bleed or anything. If you want an introspective, intimate modern folk album, there are tons of sad dudes out there with beards and acoustic guitars who make better music than this. Get an early Iron and Wine album or something. Avoid this self-indulgent swill like the plague.

Rating: 6/15

Ben Gibbard - Former Lives (2012)

Best Song: Bigger Than Love

In 2012, Ben Gibbard released Former Lives, his debut solo album, and it was bought by exactly nobody save for me and maybe Ben Gibbard's mom – and she probably only bought it out of politeness. Apparently the material was written at the same time as the Codes and Keys material, and I'm assuming he kept it to himself because he knew it wouldn't fit in on that album. Whether it was recorded at the time and just shelved until 2012 or if he held off on recording it, I don't know.

Former Lives basically sounds exactly like what you'd expect. It's a fairly standard, but solid pop-rock album, like Narrow Stairs except a bit folksier, more intimate, and probably a bit better. There are a few more surprises in these songs than there were on that album - “Bigger Than Love” has a surprisingly good duet with Aimee Mann, “Broken Yolk in Western Sky” is straight-up a classic-style country-western song, and “A Hard One to Know” has a random 5 second snippet of what sounds like a mellotron in it. Hell, “Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)” features mariachi elements.

At any rate, I'm actually rather fond of Former Lives. It's nothing special or ambitious, but it's very solid. There are really no bad tracks. Aside from the Beach Boys sendup of the short, a capella opening “Shepherd's Bush Lullaby,” which features a wry lampshading of Ben Gibbard's image - “a melancholy, whimsical tune” indeed – and maybe the closing “I'm Building a Fire” which is rather boring, everything is quite good. “Dream Song” and “Teardrop Windows” are catchy, Beatles-ish guitar pop, while “Lily” and “Lady Adelaide" are very pretty folk ballads. “Oh, Woe” and “Hard One to Know” are lyrically depressing, but musically upbeat power-pop.

I suppose if I had to pick favorites, I would go with the aforementioned anthemic “Bigger Than Love,” and I'm also a big fan of the gorgeous multi-layered harmonies in the mournful piano ballad “Duncan, Where Have You Gone?” Nothing phenomenal, but quite nice. That more or less describes Former Lives. There's plenty to like about it, and really nothing to dislike. If you're in the mood for a nice, unpretentious guitar pop album, you could do a lot worse than this.

Rating: 11/15

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys (2011)

Best Song: Home Is a Fire or Underneath the Sycamore

I admit, I was terrified of Codes and Keys when it came out. I was already a fan at the time, and I figured this was probably where Death Cab were going to jump the shark. Ben Gibbard was saying in interviews that he didn't feel right composing depressing, melancholy songs anymore as a happily married man – let's not dwell on the bitter irony that being in the future gives us on that whole thing – and Chris Walla was saying that they were focusing more on keyboards than guitars. Sure enough, all of the reviews make it out to be some sort of synth-pop album full of vapid, happy pop songs which sounds more like The Postal Service than Death Cab. I was never fond of that particular side project, and I was all set for this to be a big disaster.

About 30 seconds into “Home Is a Fire,” I felt like an idiot.

Here's the truth of the matter – yes, Codes and Keys uses more electronics than on previous Death Cab albums, but it's really not that different. They are using the production studio as more of an instrument than previously, and the result is that it feels more “constructed” and less like a cohesive band unit, and that gives it kind of a feel of an electronica album. But most of the songs are still based on piano or organ or guitar. And the greater emphasis on electronic instruments is only a small portion of their broader vision, which also includes a live orchestra on a couple of tracks and experimenting with different song structures. In other words, what people referred to as “pandering,” I call artistic progression. It's just such a breath of fresh air after the marking time album that was Narrow Stairs.

So what about the vapidity, the “happy pop songs”? Well, first of all, I certainly don't think that songs have to be focused on negative emotions to be good, but I can see why people might express some alarm at Death Cab, in particular, focusing on that kind of thing. Once again, this is total nonsense. There are some happier songs on here, yes, but Ben Gibbard still knows how to write vocal hooks, the band still knows to arrange their songs and create interesting textures, and Chris Walla still knows how to produce. Furthermore, this only comprises a handful of the material found on the album. Over half of Codes and Keys features classic Death Cab atmosphere, simply served on a different plate.

Of the upbeat pop song portion of the album, only the overproduced and boring “Unobstructed Views” and the totally unmemorable “Portable Television” fail to deliver. The hit single, “You Are a Tourist,” features a great, poppy guitar riff and a lot of lovely vocal gymnastics from Ben Gibbard. I love that distant, insistent “” background vocal, as well as the shimmering guitar lines which pop up later. The much vilified “Monday Morning” features possibly the best vocal melody on the album, which says a lot, and I don't care if it doesn't sound like Death Cab at all (other than the vocals) – it's just a great pop song. “Stay Young, Go Dancing” is largely acoustic, but also features some great piano lines and lots of sweeping touches from the aforementioned orchestra, and is a grand, romantic way to close out the album.

As for the rest, it's classic Death Cab material. Well, ok, “St. Peter's Cathedral” is a very limp and anticlimactic song, not to mention weirdly pretentious for Death Cab, but other than that, they're all winners. The aforementioned “Home Is a Fire” is haunting and apocalyptic, not to mention gorgeous. The title track is built around a hipster-cool piano line which sounds like a slowed down bit of honky-tonk to my ears, and some strange, eastern sounding string arrangements that always remind me of The Byrds' rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” for some reason. It works very well. The following “Some Boys” has a very strange structure, in that it feels like it's an overlong intro gearing up to break out into something else. It somehow still works, though, thanks to the swinging vocal melody and the almost random bits of piano and guitar which pop up at just the right times.

“Doors Unlocked and Open” is a bit of a lesser number, but I still enjoy it just fine. I dig the opening menacing bassline and the buildup of the rest of the song, even if it doesn't go anywhere too special. And finally, “Underneath the Sycamore” seems to be the one track people have salvaged from here, and I can understand why. It's the closest thing to sounding like something from Plans, and it is indeed excellent, with a peaceful, but sad guitar texture and a beautiful coda done only the way Death Cab can.

Overall, I just don't see what there is to dislike about Codes and Keys. Death Cab sound a lot more energized and engaged to be doing something different, unlike the laziness of Narrow Stairs, and it really comes through in the material. There's a bit of filler, sure, and the songs aren't as good as they are on Plans or their other classic-era albums, but overall, this is a very good album which shows that Death Cab aren't content with standing still anymore. That is something which should always be celebrated when it's done well.

Rating: 12/15

Death Cab For Cutie - The Open Door EP

Best Song: Little Bribes

Death Cab have actually released a lot of EPs over their career, but this is the only one with much significance, and even that's fairly minimal. Open Door is a short EP, composed primarily of Narrow Stairs outtakes – apparently “Little Bribes” was composed and recorded at a different time, but I can't find any information as to when. At any rate, this will be a very short review as befits a short album, because there's not a lot to talk about.

All of these songs are quite good, and would fit in easily on Narrow Stairs. I think they'd even be highlights on there. “I Was Once a Loyal Lover” is catchy, energetic pop-punk and “Diamond and a Tether” and “My Mirror Speaks” are both fine pop-rock tracks. My favorite is the opening “Little Bribes,” which admittedly doesn't have much going on musically, but has an excellent, classic power-pop vocal melody that I could listen to all day. And finally, there's a mandolin only demo of “Talking Bird” that still isn't too thrilling, but I suppose I like the more intimate arrangement for the song better.

There's no mystery as to why they left these songs of Narrow Stairs – if Ben Gibbard thought his lyrics on that one were too whiny and self-pitying, he must've been horrified by these, except “Little Bribes.” The only mystery is why he released them at all if he was so embarrassed by them. I'm glad he did, though, as it's a perfectly enjoyable companion piece to their previous album. It's also refreshing to see that Death Cab, unlike many of their contemporaries, remember how long EPs are supposed to be – a nice little 15 minutes, not the full-length album so-called EPs of bands like Arcade Fire and, my personal favorite, Sufjan Stevens' ridiculous 55 minute long "Epic Play," as I like to call it. If you liked Narrow Stairs, you'll like this also.

Rating: 11/15

Monday, December 15, 2014

Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs (2008)

Best Song: Bixby Canyon Bridge

Plans was a huge commercial success, but while the public ate it up, the critics, while not exactly panning it, gave it very “meh” reviews and declared Death Cab's sell out complete and their career over. There was basically no chance of the critical adulation returning, but Death Cab's best move probably would've been to push back and defy critical expectations even more, showing them that they're going to continue to try new things and evolve no matter what the critics wanted from them. So, naturally, the followup, Narrow Stairs, is easily their laziest album ever, basically sounding like a less good Transatlanticism. The result didn't please anybody – Death Cab fans weren't happy with it, Plans fans weren't happy with it, even Death Cab weren't happy with it, and the critics said “See, I knew it!!”

Death Cab themselves have been very down on this album. Ben Gibbard, referring to the lyrics, says he considers it embarrassing, overly self-pitying, and called it “Death Cab's most depressing album.” That's a ridiculous claim, of course – We Have The Facts is a much more depressing album if nothing else, though he may have a point about the lyrics. I don't really listen to Death Cab for the lyrics, and even if I did, they aren't as bad as all that on this album. Honestly, though, as much as this album is dismissed and as sad as it is to see Death Cab releasing such a very typical pop-rock album that they could've done in their sleep, it's still not bad at all. It's a pretty good pop-rock album, it just doesn't stack up to most of their other output. That doesn't mean they forgot to write good melodies and songs, though.

Well, ok, sometimes they did. The biggest problem with Narrow Stairs is an alarming amount of filler compared to previous albums (except The Photo Album, although nobody will admit it but me). “You Can Do Better Than Me” and “Your New Twin Sized Bed” - whose names speak for themselves on the lyrical content – are strangely clumsy attempts at ballads, something they did so well on the previous album. “Talking Bird” is better, but depending on my mood on any given day, it's either a tear jerker or remarkably boring. For some reason, “The Ice Is Getting Thinner” is something of a fan favorite despite basically being “Talking Bird Part 2” and not being as good as that already questionable ballad. I guess I don't really get Death Cab fans, despite being one myself, since I've pretty much dismissed every fan favorite to this point.

The rest is quite fine, though. It's very by numbers, but there are two tracks where they do try something new, and they're both highlights. The big hit single, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” features an extended astral instrumental opening which sounds more like Pink Floyd than Death Cab, and the song itself is a nicely hooky dark pop song. The other, “Pity and Fear,” is built around a sort of Peter Gabriel-ish tribal rhythm and a tasty, creepy guitar line, with a typically good vocal melody, and ends with a cool guitar riff that reminds me of Black Sabbath of all things.

The opening “Bixby Canyon Bridge” is a nice yearning anthem about the frustration of failing to find spiritual enlightenment, and it's more or less just a somewhat lesser Transatlanticism song with an organ shoved in to remind us that Plans happened. The mid-section is a little bit overlong and tries a little bit too hard to recapture the dreamy atmosphere of past tension building Death Cab instrumental sections, but I still enjoy it, and the rest of the song is good enough that I consider it the best on the album. “No Sunlight” is a super catchy, compact pop song, and “Long Division” is a good post-punkish rocker. “Grapevine Fires” is another one of those Zen-like songs, like “Passenger Seat” or “Brothers on a Hotel Bed,” where not much is happening beyond a minimalist electric piano line, but it still manages to work its way under your skin anyways. And finally, “Cath...” is a fine mid-tempo atmospheric number that wouldn't be out of place on their early albums with a different production style.

In the end, I tend to think quite positively about Narrow Stairs. Sure, it's a disappointment coming from Death Cab, and it's definitely lazy, but it's not like they just lost all of their talent. This is a perfectly fine, pretty good pop-rock album. I'm just used to getting a lot more from Death Cab, but after four phenomenal albums, I can't really get upset that they kind of coasted for one of them, not when it's still a good album that I enjoy just fine. Besides, although their followup still didn't make anybody happy, this wasn't the beginning of a trend, and Death Cab would go on to try new things again in their next album. Narrow Stairs gets a perfectly fine, shiny, optimistic 11.

Rating: 11/15

Death Cab For Cutie - Plans (2005)

Best Song: What Sarah Said

Transatlanticism went gold, a big accomplishment for a small label album, and was a major critical success, granting Death Cab the attentions of Atlantic. Another big factor in the major label attention was probably the wildly unexpected success of Give Up by The Postal Service, a side project of Ben Gibbard's that overcame the hurdle of not being good to go platinum. Making the leap to a major label is never easy for a beloved indie band, and while the general public loved it – it went platinum and spawned two hit singles – Plans is where the critics turned their backs on Death Cab.

I'm going to take a moment to rave against this ridiculously unfair critical system that seems to apply to indie or alternative bands in particular. It happens to them more often than anybody else, at least. Critics, particularly Pitchfork and those like them, latch on to one particular album by these guys and then set up this impossible standard where one of three things happens – they make another album that's similar, in which case “they're not evolving”; they make another album that's different, in which case “they're not doing what they do best,” it's a “failed experiment,” or “they've betrayed their roots”; they use their success to make the leap to a major label, in which case it doesn't matter what they do, because they're sell-outs and must be shunned. It's an absolutely absurd, self-defeating philosophy and there's absolutely nothing they can do. It's based on coolness factor and not musical substance. This is basically what happened to Death Cab.

Alright, well, enough about that. Let's talk about Plans. So, Death Cab put their increased budget to great use, because, if nothing else, Plans sounds absolutely gorgeous. Chris Walla still produces, and while he was always an excellent producer, he's able to make this album sound like something they probably wouldn't have been able to produce before. The keyboards positively glisten and sparkle and the guitars shimmer and glow. I don't know how else to explain it. It's one of the most beautiful sounding albums I've ever heard.

Now, I don't know if Death Cab already had this material prepared and Chris Walla produced it appropriately or if they realized the potentials of the major label budget and equipment available and created material accordingly, but one way or another, there is a heavy preponderance of low-key ballads on here. Several reviews I've read have compared Plans to Coldplay disparagingly, but that's not really fair – I can see the comparison in style, but Death Cab are much better songwriters than anybody in Coldplay, and the lovely production only accentuates the inherent beauty in the songs themselves. However, I will admit that it can get rather samey, since most of the tracks are rather mellow and thus it can start to drag a bit.

There are also a couple of tracks that seem to rely a bit too much on the production and don't have much in the way of an interesting musical essence. “Different Names for the Same Thing” is hardly terrible, but it's at least a couple of minutes too long, stretching out its coda to make the song 5 minutes when it should be 3. Additionally, the closing “Stable Song” - actually a re-recording of a track they released on an EP three years prior – is remarkably dull, and as many times as I've listened to this album, I couldn't tell you a thing about it other than that. I used to lump “Summer Skin” into this category also, but while it's certainly one of the lesser numbers compared to the great tracks on here, it's still a perfectly fine, reasonably memorable and pretty atmospheric ballad.

It just can't hope to stand up to the big winners here. The opening grand organ line of “Marching Bands of Manhattan” will suck you into the album immediately, and Ben Gibbard's lovely, lilting vocal melody will only cement that. I love the coda, too – it manages to just avoid being repetitive or overlong and instead ends up being quite moving and dynamic, in the tradition of other great Death Cab climaxes like “Bend to Squares” or “Your Bruise.”

“Brothers on a Hotel Bed” - strangely, the first Death Cab song I ever heard – is somewhat strange in that it seems like there's nothing much happening. While it might sound dull on first listen, there's just something about that tiny, glimmering electric piano line and Ben Gibbard's mournful vocal delivery that will work its way under your skin and make it into a real tearjerker. “Someday You Will Be Loved” is another great, affecting ballad, as is the much maligned hit single, the acoustic suicide song “I Will Follow You into the Dark.”

There are a couple of more energetic tracks. The other big hit single, and probably their most recognized song, “Soul Meets Body,” is just a great pop song, bursting from the seams with vocal hooks and mesmerizing instrumental textures. “Crooked Teeth” - the closest thing to a real rock song on here - has a nice, chugging bass riff and a great chorus, and “Your Heart Is an Empty Room” features heavenly vocal harmonies and one of the most beautiful slide guitar tones I've ever heard.

My absolute favorite is the devastating ballad that is “What Sarah Said.” It's about the horror and frustration of sitting in a waiting room at a hospital, knowing that you're waiting for a loved one to die, and for once, I think even the lyrics are excellent. The rolling, almost funereal piano line sets the mood immediately, and Ben's vocal delivery juxtaposed with that is heartbreaking. By the time we get to the coda, with Ben Gibbard's ethereal “Who's gonna watch youuuuu diiiiie?” floating through the speakers over some sparkling guitar lines, there's a good chance I'm in tears. If it's not the best song they ever did, it's second only to “Transatlanticism.”

Plans is responsible for some of the most emotional, catchy, and beautiful tracks in the Death Cab library. Why it has their lowest score on Metacritic, I'll never truly understand. However, I will admit that it's not their best album, due to a couple of filler tracks and the fact that, again, it does start to really wear down on you when taken all at once. Unlike their first two albums, which are also quite languid, this album isn't quite as musically unique and interesting to sort of ease the effect of that. As much as I do love Plans and its sound, I will admit that it's a lot less unique than their early material – they just do this type of piano-based pop thing much better than, say, The Fray or Coldplay. It's still going to get a 13 because the songs are, by and large, just so great, but a low one, bordering on a 12. It's an excellent, easy to enjoy album, though, and I highly recommend it.

Rating: 13/15

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Death Cab For Cutie - Transatlanticism (2003)

Best Song: Transatlanticism

Lineup change:

Ben Gibbard – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Chris Walla – Guitar, Keyboards, Production
Nick Harmer – Bass
Jason McGerr – Drums


I tend to make a lot of R.E.M. comparisons when talking about Death Cab, but it's just a very easy thing to do. While they aren't very similar musically, they both had very similar career trajectories and it's easy to relate the two. So please forgive me when I say that Transatlanticism, in terms of relation to their earlier albums and their future as a band, is essentially Death Cab's Life's Rich Pageant or Document. In other words, much like R.E.M., they sacrificed a small bit of their unique identity in order to create music that is more immediately approachable, but without losing their core strengths – in Death Cab's case, beautiful vocal melodies and moody instrumental textures and atmosphere.

The result was, surprisingly, almost never labeled a sell out – that would be their follow up – but did become their most commercially successful album to this point and, by far, their most critically acclaimed album to date. It's a rare album that is widely accepted by the general public, the fans, and the critics, and it combines immediate accessibility with a filler free philosophy and great musical ideas in a way that is rarely achieved. Think Rumours if it forgot to take its Prozac.

Additionally, Jason McGerr joined the band at this time, permanently, and I think he deserves some credit for how much more energetic Transatlanticism is than previous Death Cab albums. He doesn't do anything incredibly special, but he's definitely one of the better “just the drummer”s of the 21st century, and he does some nifty little things here and there that I enjoy. Mostly, though, he just seems much more fluid than any of the previous drummers Death Cab employed.

There really are no bad tracks on here. It's one excellent pop-rock song after another, almost all of which are among Death Cab's best. The opening “New Year” immediately tells you this is going to be different from their previous efforts, with crashing power chords and an anthemic chorus that sounds nothing like anything Death Cab had done before. “Title and Registration” is built around a deliberately primitive sounding drum machine, a beautiful acoustic guitar line, and, of course, tons of vocal hooks.

I used to consider “Lightness” filler, but I wouldn't dream of it now. It's very lovely, full of lots of little details that make it quite haunting, including Ben's little “Oh-AHH-ho” vocal things, the swinging rhythm of the drums, and the intimate guitar lines. “Expo '86” and "Death of an Interior Decorator" are more or less cut from the same cloth, but still retain unique melodies and identities. They both have sort of resigned, laid back vocal melodies with a quiet air of desperation surrounding them, and bridges that release all of the tension that was built up, the first by rocking out (by Death Cab standards) and the second with Byrdsian jangly guitar lines.

“Tiny Vessels” is the one track that sounds like it could fit in on any of the previous three albums, with droning, lethargic, but beautiful guitar lines. Only the loud chords in the bridge betray that it doesn't truly belong on those albums, but it still would've been a highlight had it been on them. “We Looked Like Giants” is the most anthemic rocker Death Cab have ever done, following along the lines of “New Year,” and it even features an extended instrumental coda that's well worth listening to. “A Lack of Color” is a very pretty, sad acoustic guitar ballad that closes out the album perfectly, leaving you wishing for more.

In spite of all of this excellent material, my favorite is still the title track. It starts off as a quiet, beautiful, sad ballad, typical Death Cab material. But it features some impressive build up, with the guitar lines becoming louder and more prominent, and the instrumental textures weaving with the desperate “I need you so much closer” repetition builds up so much tension that when the release comes finally, after almost 7 minutes, I find it extremely moving and cathartic. And the following “Passenger Seat” can only really be discussed in the context of the title track, as it essentially functions as a companion piece. On its own, it's not particularly noteworthy, but it serves its purpose very well as a quiet, contemplative breath of fresh air after the harrowing title track. It's the closest thing to filler here, but I couldn't imagine the album without it.

Transatlanticism is the culmination of Death Cab's career. The songs are uniformally excellent, it's fairly diverse for a Death Cab album – certainly much moreso than anything else they've done – and it always leaves me satisfied, but craving more (if that makes any sense at all). You probably noticed I used words like “lovely” and “beautiful” a lot in this review, but there's no other way to explain it. It's simply a collection of very well-played, well-written, and well-produced gorgeous pop-rock tracks, combined with Ben Gibbard's touching vocals and Death Cab's unique brand of melancholy. As I said, there's no filler, and every song except maybe “Passenger Seat,” whose place on the album I already explained, is one of the best pop songs of the 2000's. So how could this hope to be anything but one of the best pop-rock albums of the 2000's? I know I like Death Cab much more than most people, but no matter how skeptical you are, I do believe that Transatlanticism has a place in pretty much everybody's collection. You probably won't like it as much as I do, but I'd be shocked if you didn't like it at all. And who knows? Maybe it will become as important to you as it has to me.

Rating: 14/15

Friday, December 12, 2014

Death Cab For Cutie - The Photo Album (2001)

Best Song: I Was a Kaleidoscope

Lineup change:

Ben Gibbard – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Chris Walla – Guitar, Keyboards, Production
Nick Harmer – Bass
Michael Schorr – Drums


There are two things you need to know about The Photo Album. The first is that this is a fan favorite, considered by many Death Cab fans to be one of the best, if not the best, album they ever did. The second is that I absolutely cannot stand this album, and I have no idea why it's so beloved by the fanbase.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong here. The Photo Album sounds basically just like the first two, although there are a few steps towards Transatlanticism, namely pushing Ben Gibbard's vocals more up front and tightening up the instrumental aspects – less droning guitar interplay and more traditional guitar lines. Still, these elements are only there in limited doses. It seems like Ben Gibbard and friends just forgot to write any hooks or decent melodies to go with the material, leaving us with mostly just atmosphere.

Now it's true that the first two albums took several listens to grow on me, so I figured maybe this one was the same. Nope. There really isn't much to this album. The first two tracks – probably the worst on the album – illustrate the problems quite well. I can't really talk about the opening “Steadier Footing” because I'm not entirely sure the song exists. Less than nothing happens in this track. It is the anti-song. The following “A Movie Script Ending” starts off promisingly, with some pretty jangly guitar lines, but then we hit the chorus, which is just annoying. I hate that “High...WAY! High...WAY!” thing a lot. Since when were Death Cab's vocal melodies “annoying”?? Vocal melodies are, like, their thing, man.

The rest of the songs aren't much better. Check out the extremely awkward structure of “We Laugh Indoors,” which kind of rambles along with the most trivial vocal melody I can imagine. Barely modulating your voice every other syllable does not constitute a vocal melody, Ben. You're supposed to be good at this! Then you get the big hook with the “I loved you, Guinevere” line, and yeah, it's catchy and moody, but it's also repeated way too much with none of the instrumental buildup that Death Cab was so good at in the previous two albums. Then out of nowhere it starts rocking out in, admittedly, a way Death Cab hadn't done before, but it doesn't fit at all, it's not interesting, and the song doesn't have any real build up to it.

“Information Travels Faster” is a little better, but it still has the same basic problem of repeating its one and only hook eight thousand times. “Styrofoam Plates” starts off promisingly, but it goes absolutely nowhere over its five and a half minutes, and the lyrics this time are horrendous, to the point of marring the song further than normal. The ending is especially bad. Ben Gibbard, of all people, attempts to growl the last line to predictably laughable results. It doesn't help that the line in question is “You were a bastard in life/Now a bastard in death, YEAH!” Shut the hell up, Ben. Christ.

I almost like “Why You'd Want To Live Here.” It starts off pretty well, and I like the chugging, “rough” guitar riff interplaying with the jangly lines, but it quickly becomes obvious that it's the only idea they have, and the song totally falls apart at the completely non-cathartic, limp chorus. “Blacking Out the Friction” is basically the same exact idea, too.

I think that's the reason why I dislike this album so much. It's a cock tease. Every single damn song starts off like it's going to be good and then just fizzles out by the time it reaches the chorus. It's “Erectile Dysfunction: The Musical.”

Well, almost every song. The Photo Album is saved from complete oblivion by a couple of things. A minor one is “Coney Island” - it wouldn't be a highlight on any other Death Cab album, and it's not very memorable, but it is very pretty, and it doesn't annoy me like almost every other track on here. The big highlight, then, is the pop-rock masterpiece that is “I Was a Kaleidoscope.” It's seriously different from anything they've done before, and somewhat points forward to Transatlanticism. The song is built around a tasty, poppy riff, a classic vocal melody with the tons of hooks you'd expect from Death Cab, and a beautiful bridge with a lovely piano line. Furthermore, it does a great job of marrying its superficially happy melody with the depressing lyrics, soon to become a Death Cab trademark. It's an excellent number, and what it's doing here surrounded by this tripe, I have no idea. I'm glad it is, though, or we'd find no redemption here.

I don't know what went wrong with The Photo Album, but with the exception of “I Was a Kaleidoscope” and I guess “Coney Island,” it is a musical wasteland, devoid of any good melodic ideas or hooks. Not every genre of music needs these things of course, but this is indie-pop-rock. It does. All you're left with is atmosphere, so if all you care about from Death Cab is their admittedly unique atmosphere, I guess you might enjoy this. You can get the same thing with infinitely better songs in any of the preceding or following albums, though.

As for me, the only bigger missteps I can think of from artists who were clearly at the top of their game at the time are For Those About to Rock and Sometime in New York City. The only reasons it's not getting a lower grade are because of the aforementioned great song and the fact it doesn't sound horrible. It's not drenched in electronics or auto-tuned to hell or badly produced or anything. And most songs have at least, like, half a good musical idea. It's just boring to the point of annoyance. While it's on, I just have this completely irrational kneejerk reaction where I just want it to shut up. Get “I Was a Kaleidoscope” and leave the rest at the record store, or the iTunes store, or Amazon mp3, or whatever the hell you crazy kids use these days.

Rating: 8/15

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Death Cab For Cutie - We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000)

Best Song: I have no idea

Lineup Change:

Ben Gibbard: Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Drums
Chris Walla: Guitar, Keyboards, Productions
Nick Harmer: Bass


First, a technical note – drummer Nathan Good left in the middle of the sessions, and as such almost all of the drums are played by Ben Gibbard himself.

Death Cab's second album is formally rather similar to the debut, but there are some important changes here and there. The guitars generally make more distinct lines and feature tones more set to “glimmer” or “jangle” than “haze”. In addition, Ben Gibbard's vocal style is softer and more soothing – as it would be from here on out, generally – to suit the lyrical content of the album. Whereas Something About Airplanes primarily features angry indictments of nameless targets, We Have The Facts is more or less a concept album about a broken relationship – very fertile ground for a band like Death Cab. While there is an occasional bitter diatribe, most of the album is self-pitying and self-hatred. Ben Gibbard's vocal melodies are also a lot more immediate in general, and less obfuscated.

It's worth noting that Death Cab, for almost their entire existence, has asserted that We Have The Facts is their best album, and I can understand why. Most Death Cab albums are aimlessly melancholic, but no more than that – this one is downright suicidal. There's a certain desperation and longing to this album that really gives it an edge. I will admit that the sequencing isn't super great. While it's not really anymore languid than the debut, the slower songs tend to get grouped together in the second half, and as a result, We Have The Facts can really feel like it's dragging near the end. So, how can you tell if you'll like this album as much as Something About Airplanes? As in most things, the answer lies in Clouds Taste Metallic. Allow me to explain.

Clouds Taste Metallic and We Have The Facts are very similar in some key ways. They both feature songs which, when taken individually, are pretty hard to deny as being great (in my opinion). However, they're all roughly the same tempo and the same mood, all reaching for the same emotional centers. Thus, when grouped together in their respective albums, they tend to elicit one of two reactions – either “Yeah, these songs are cool, but man, does it start to drag” or an extremely primal, emotional response akin to some sort of spiritual experience. Basically, that was a very roundabout way of saying that, just like Clouds, if you're keyed in to this album's emotional frequency, you'll probably find it a masterpiece. If not, well, you'll probably still like it, if you don't hate Death Cab's style. DISCLAIMER: I am in no way saying We Have The Facts is as good as Clouds, simply drawing a comparison based on their similarities.

Because individually, these songs are pretty much entirely wonderful, although very difficult to talk about individually. The only one which doesn't really hold up is “Little Fury Bugs”, which is both the slowest track and the most devoid of interesting ideas. Unfortunately it sort of drags the album to a halt at just about the worst possible time. The good news is it's quickly redeemed by “Company Calls”, one of Death Cab's best and hookiest pop-rockers prior to Transatlanticism, which provides a much needed shot of energy in the second half.

Other than that, you'll basically get one song after another of gorgeous guitar interplay and vocal hooks. I guess some of my favorite moments are the “It's so appropriate/The way we amplify the sound” chorus of “The Employment Pages” - which I haven't gotten out of my head since the first time I heard it - the hyper-catchy “For What Reason” which manages to combine the gorgeousness of the slower numbers with the energy of something like “Company Calls,” and the closing “Scientist Studies,” with a very heart-tugging vocal melody and some great buildup along the lines of Something About Airplanes. But really, it's almost impossible to choose favorites. Even the lyrics actually aren't too bad – “I may have got an invitation but I wasn't invited” is a great line, for example, and I'm always struck by the bitterness of lines like “I hope that he keeps you up for weeks/Like you did to me.” At the worst, they're inobtrusive. No minors in Asia here.

Ultimately, I end up liking this one about as much as Something About Airplanes – maybe a little bit more, but not enough to make a difference in rating. I like the songs so much, I don't even notice the problems with album flow that I mentioned earlier, though I will readily admit that they do exist. Much like the debut, We Have The Facts is a definite grower, but not quite as extreme as that one. If you want to check out Death Cab's pre-Transatlanticism career, this is probably the best place to start.

Rating: 13/15

Death Cab For Cutie - Something About Airplanes (1998)

Best Song: Amputations


Ben Gibbard – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards
Chris Walla – Guitar, Keyboards, Production
Nick Harmer – Bass
Nathan Good – Drums


Yeah, yeah, I know, I did Death Cab before, but they meet the criteria of being ignored by the WRC, and I'm very comfortable and familiar with them.

When Ben Gibbard and his terrible haircut decided to get together to record some demos as a side project, he didn't expect it to turn into anything serious. He had another band at the time – a power-pop outfit called Pinwheel – and he merely wanted to record some other songs that he'd been working on that wouldn't fit in with his current band. He had so little faith in the project that he named it after an obscure Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song, but the demo tapes gained a lot of traction and soon he found himself putting together a new band under the name of Death Cab For Cutie, replacing his old one for good.

Something About Airplanes is a deceptive album. The first time you listen to it – maybe the first several times – it will seem like a gloomy glob of nothing, all atmosphere and no real substance, with songs that are impossible to tell apart, dragging along at an agonizingly slow pace. Every song is set to one mode, and that is “depressed and melancholy.” It can be a tough nut to crack, but the more you listen to it, the more the vocal melodies start to pop out at you, and the more intoxicating the atmosphere becomes. The production is brilliant, with the hazy guitars and obfuscated vocals creating the off-kilter melancholy that Death Cab does so well. The only way I can describe it is that Ben Gibbard's voice sounds like it's coming at you from another dimension, or from inside your own mind.

Furthermore, and this is essential to getting into this band, Ben Gibbard's vocal melodies are typically outstanding, and his lovely, sad voice never fails to bring them to life. The instruments are used as more of a textural device than for traditional riffing or soloing, and the textures they create are often gorgeous.

The album is more or less evenly divided into slow moving atmospheric pieces and mid-tempo “rockers”, although Death Cab never really rock out in any traditional sense. Pretty much all of the rockers are winners - “President of What?” has a gripping organ/guitar groove going on, not to mention that descending “Something's got to break you down” refrain that pulls you right in. The fan favorite “Pictures in an Exhibition” is just a typical chunky indie-rocker with an above-average (for the genre) vocal melody, and it's probably the weakest of this group, though still quite good. It's just not as good as the hyper-catchy “Fake Frowns” or especially “Amputations,” with its fantastically simple feedback-y guitar line and the unforgettable “He's unresponsive 'cause you're irresponsible” refrain.

Really, the only songs which let the album down at all fall into the other category. “Sleep Spent” is alright, just a pleasant, pretty, but rather forgettable ballad. This album would be much better off without the other two, though. “”The Face That Launched 1000 Shits” is, first of all, a God awful title for any song. It just kind of plods along with no real purpose, and I don't even get what's with the goofy title - Ben seems to sing “ships” in the song itself and the song clearly refers to the Trojan War. It also features unquestionably the worst lyric in any Death Cab song ever - “You can see I'm not a minor in Asia no more.” Ugh, you cannot be serious. I cringed just typing it. It was apparently written by somebody named Jay Chilcote, the only song in the band's catalogue not at least co-written by Ben Gibbard, and that number should be reduced by one. And finally, “Line of Best Fit” isn't awful, but as a semi-decent atmospheric number, it has no excuse being 7 minutes long. Even if it was trimmed down, it would still be one of the lesser songs on here. Not a great choice for the closer.

Still, let's get back to the positive. The other three remaining tracks are phenomenal. “Champagne from a Paper Cup” combines a hazy guitar line and Ben's slightly drunk vocal melody to create the perfect musical picture of being trashed out of your mind at a party but not enjoying yourself at all. Also, while I'm not a fan of Death Cab's lyrics much in general, and especially not early on, I admit that I do really like the line “I think I'm drunk enough to drive you home now.”

The other two feature some absolutely fantastic build up. “Bend to Squares” opens us up with a lovely combination of a mournful acoustic guitar line and cello, with Ben Gibbard's ethereal voice almost whispering the vocal melody to you. The song gets progressively louder until some electric guitar chords and drums come crashing in, tearing down the musical curtain, and by the time the anthemic “What a way to cut lengthwise” refrain comes in, you'll feel the song has really earned it. No moreso than “Your Bruise,” though, whose distant opening guitar line always brings to mind a church bell tolling on a dark, rainy night for some reason. The song paints a picture of a deeply hidden pain come to light, and does so much better musically (and vocally) than it does lyrically.

Death Cab's debut is one of the strongest albums of their career, but it's also probably the least accessible. As I said, the droning, lethargic guitar atmospherics can really wear you down, and it can be hard to tell the songs apart for a long time. It's actually very similar to Murmur by R.E.M. in that way. It takes a long time to make a distinct impression, but when it does, it gets under your skin deeply. If you can ignore Ben Gibbard's high school level poetry and get enraptured by the sound and the melancholy atmosphere, eventually the brilliant vocal melodies and beautiful instrumental textures will reveal themselves to you. Something About Airplanes ends up being a tough, but highly rewarding listen.

Rating: 13/15

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Is There Anybody Out There?

Hey guys. It's me. You may remember me as the guy who used to fret over every little detail about his blog and occasionally, in between anxiety attacks, might post a music review or two. The reasons why I stopped are mainly personal, due to the direction my life was going, but I think that now, I might be ready to give the whole thing another shot.

I deleted all of the old reviews, but I have them all backed up, and I'll upload the few with which I'm still happy, eventually. As it is, I think I'm going to take this whole thing a little differently. I'm going to try not to worry about it so much, for one thing – you don't really need to know this, and unless it's relevant, I won't bring it up, but I suffer from rather severe depression and anxiety. Like, “been to a psych ward and on medication” severe. So, I have to try and not take this so seriously, or else I'll keep constantly second-guessing myself and get over-stressed for no real reason over what should just be a fun little hobby.

That's not to say that constructive criticism isn't welcome, nor is it to say that anybody who read this a couple years ago and left comments caused any mental or emotional turmoil for me. That would be ridiculous. I'm simply saying that me, personally, my levels of perfectionism mixed in with my own issues were causing me a great deal of stress when I was working on this before. So I'm gonna try to not force things so much, and I'm going to just do whatever I feel like doing, unless people reading have useful suggestions for ways to improve, which, again, are always welcome.

Now, for some basic notes on the blog itself – I'm going to use the by now infamous 15 point scale. Back in the day, when I started doing this, I declined using it because I felt it was ubiquitous and overexposed in the WRC. Now, however, hardly anybody uses it anymore, and as such, I don't feel bad doing so. A lot of people have told me that letter grades have mostly the same flexibility while being a little more intuitive, but, I dunno, maybe it's just the way my mind works, and maybe it's because I did get so used to thinking in terms of the 15 point scale, but I do find the 15 point scale makes the most sense to me.

I used to review albums in Chronological order, which is a system I still like for various reasons. That's how I have my own musical collection organized. It provides for a diverse listening experience and a diverse set of reviews for you, the reader, so we're not bogged down on just one artist for so long. Due to showing the progression of musical evolution, it's easier to show albums in context. It's not a common organizational method, so it's a bit unique. And, honestly, I just find it fun to do.

But there are some legitimate problems with it – for one thing, it will take forever to get to later bands, and also, it means that for a long time, there will be a plethora of bands which have been written about to death by the WRC. Simply occasionally covering a later band along with the chronological list wasn't particularly satisfactory to me. This is a problem I still haven't solved. On the highly unlikely chance that anybody is reading this, if you have any suggestions, by all means, let me know.

In the meantime, until I solve this conundrum, I'm going to review some artists that are less covered by the WRC. Some of my favorite artists are those that have been extensively covered by everybody ever, so that can't last forever, but for now, I think setting a foundation of somewhat more obscure bands is the best way to go. Keep in mind that, when I say “obscure”, I simply mean “less ubiquitous in reviewing circles.”

So, if you're reading this, thanks for stopping by. I'm going to give this thing an honest shot, as I did before, and we'll see what happens.