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

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Artist: Death Cab for Cutie

Album: You Can Play These Songs With Chords

Label: Barsuk

Review date: Dec. 11, 2002

You Can Play These Songs with Feeling Too

The first six letters in "Death Cab For Cutie" rearrange to form "detach." You can also make "the cad" or "D cheat" (and if you've ever been to homestarrunner.com you won't discount that one), but it's "detach" that's important here. The inscrutable letter-swapping propensities of my own mind aside, detachment is something of a watchword for Washington's anagrammatical indie-rock darlings. "Nothing hurts like nothing at all," singer Ben Gibbard tells us not three minutes into You Can Play These Songs With Chords +10, and over the course of three excellent releases, DCFC have abided by that theory, expressing as much feeling through what's not there as what is. The songs are full of emotion and tension, but what sets them apart from the garden variety confessionals they're often mistaken for is their restraint: Gibbard never lets his bitterness come out too strongly, preferring instead to hint at it in artfully vague lyrics and the occasional swell of earnest melody.

The band's detachment, musically and lyrically, has never been a problem. Their 1999 proper debut, Something About Airplanes is given to a calm beauty whose tension is buried beneath lilting cello lines and soft drums. The lyrics push a little further — as in lines like "I think I'm drunk enough to drive you home now" or "You're aiming to please way off target" — but with Gibbard's sweet delivery they still shy away from confrontation. The next year's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes suggests more pith and angst, this time directed as much at the urban decay of Americana as at the unspecified love interest. Facts is more aggressive and rock-focused, but again betrays surprisingly little emotion, leaving the listener to fill in the gaps between thinly veiled indictments and wonderfully obscure details. Last year’s The Photo Album is perhaps Death Cab's finest and most direct release yet; the band rocks its hardest and Gibbard calls out his demons, from lost loves to deadbeat fathers, coyly but guilelessly. Still, he reveals very little of his own hand.

So after three gently moody indie-rock treasures (with consistently beautiful packaging), the dominant mood is still nonchalance. We're free to go as deep into the songs as we like, but Gibbard and company seem content on the surface, keeping an editorial distance and never getting too personal. "Your Bruise" and "Styrofoam Plates" are some of the most emotionally compelling songs in recent memory, but they are performed so languidly that they seem anything but heartfelt. Funny, then, that Barsuk's next offering is You Can Play These Songs With Chords +10, a five year-old document of a nascent DCFC that almost overflows with a heretofore unheard urgency and shows exactly the kind of energy their songs could — and theoretically still can — possess.

The story behind it is a familiar one: in 1997, before Death Cab as we know them, Gibbard recorded eight songs on Chris Walla's new eight-track, and released them on Elsinor Records as a cassette called You Can Play These Songs With Chords. Five of the songs appear in new incarnations on Something About Airplanes, and the rest didn't resurface until now. The 2002 Chords (+10) is a reissue of those eight songs and ten others (b-side, outtakes, covers, all of them somewhat hard to find), and thus more a compilation than a proper album. No conceptual thread ties the eighteen songs together cohesively, but most of them share something altogether unexpected: a vibrancy that makes even the five Airplanes tracks sound fresh. Even if they're not as fully realized as later songs, they're appealing on the grounds of their palpable energy alone.

The eight tracks from 1997 don't land too far off from Airplanes, but somehow Gibbard playing all the instruments makes more of a joyful noise than his four piece band did in 1999. He sounds far more enthusiastic and decisive on songs like "Pictures In An Exhibition" and "Champagne From A Paper Cup," which are slightly faster than their album versions, while the almost childlike excitement of fellow Northwesterners like Built to Spill and Modest Mouse infects "Amputations" and the unreleased "Hindsight" and "That's Incentive." This energy, in place of Airplane's fuzzy sedateness, is an effective and welcome change, and makes for a different enough set of songs to merit a fresh listen.

The other ten, selections from 1996 to 2000, form the sort of b-sides collection that offers a few gems but won't win many new fans. Arranged chronologically, they show early enthusiasm gradually giving way to the jaded languor of the albums; the zeal with which the band tackles the Smiths' "This Charming Man" and the stately "TV Trays" in 1996 sounds diametrically opposed to the slow, blasé delivery of the latest "Prove My Hypotheses" and "Army Corps of Architects." As the songs progress from spirited urgency to gentle nonchalance, the collection encompasses some interesting artifacts, like the analog audio collage "Flustered/Hey Tomcat!" and the lovely Secret Stars cover "Wait," but by the end it comes to feel like familiar territory.

The reissue of Chords is scattered, as one could only expect it to be, but it manages to be surprisingly provocative as well. The energy of the 1997 cassette demonstrates that emotion doesn't detract from the songs at all, but also casts the band's trademark detachment in a new light: if it sounds this good with enthusiasm, why deny it? The hushed songs toward the end serve as reminders that the distance approach ain't broke, but by that point we can't help wonder if they wouldn't sound better with a little feeling. Simply put, Chords +10 is an album for the Death Cab For Cutie fan, not the novice; hearing this one first might well spoil listens to the others, which would be one of life's little tragedies.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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