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Death Cab For Cutie

Bellingham, WA is about as close as you can get to Canada without having to say "eh" in every other sentence. It's a laid back college town with some spectacular scenery that's often shrouded by the smoke from nearby pulp and paper mills. That's a good analogy for Death Cab For Cutie's music. It's from that bucolic environment that they emerged in '97 and began a long career as an indie favorite and critics' darling.

Singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard recorded a solo project under the name All-Time Quarterback. While the cassette was hardly a breakthrough it did convince him to start a group with guitarist/organist Christopher Walla (who also recorded the early DCFC sessions), bassist Nick Harmer, and drummer Nathan Good. The following year, Death Cab For Cutie released their debut LP "Something About Airplanes." In '00, the group was finishing "Have The Facts & We're Voting Yes" when Good departed. He was replaced by Michael Schorr. Later that year the EP "Forbidden Love" was released. "The Photo Album" dropped in '01. At this point in their career, DCFC was big news in the northwest but hardly anywhere else.

Former Eureka Farm stickman Jason McGerr landed in time for the "Transatlanticism" album. While touring the group recorded, "The John Byrd EP," named after their touring sound engineer. After nearly seven years on indie labels (a long time indeed), Death Cab For Cutie signed with Atlantic Records. '05's "Plans" was their major label debut.

Death Cab For Cutie issued their sixth studio album, "Narrow Stairs" in May, '08. "I just don't feel like we really have anything to prove of it other than to ourselves and to making a record we really enjoy," said Gibbard.

The absolutely brilliant "I Will Possess Your Heart," the lead single, was nominated for "Best Rock Song" at the 51st Grammy Awards. "Narrow Stairs" was also nominated for "Best Alternative Music Album." Though DCFC went home empty on Grammy night, "Narrow Stairs" was the group's first album to hit #1 on the Billboard 200.

MTV called "Narrow Stairs" the "best thing (Death Cab For Cutie has) ever done." Rolling Stone added that the album "trades the group's bright melancholy for something nearer to despair." That sounds like fun.

Often a group records more tracks for an album than are necessary. The theory being that an album should consist of the best available songs. Somebody; the group, producer or label, makes the hard decision regarding what to include and what to leave off. In the process, some good songs get shelved.

Following the success of "Narrow Stairs" it was probably inevitable that the omitted tracks would see the light of day on the '09 EP "The Open Door." And later in the year, Gibbard, always one for side projects (The Postal Service/All-Time Quarterback), partnered with Jay Farrar (Son Volt) to create the soundtrack for "One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur."

Death Cab For Cutie's major '09 coup was landing "Meet Me On The Equinox" as the lead single on the "Twilight: New Moon" soundtrack. It was the first time the band ever contributed a song to a soundtrack.

On lesser but still notable level, Gibbard sang the National Anthem before Game 3 of the '10 National League Championship series between the hometown San Francisco Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies. Gibbard's wife Zooey Deschanel (She & Him) performed "God Bless America" during the 7th Inning Stretch.

'11 saw release of "Codes And Keys," "a much less guitar-centric album than we've ever made before," according to a band statement.

Three years later, with the next album completed, Walla announced his departure from Death Cab For Cutie, after seventeen years. "I think I long for the unknown. It might be that simple," Walla wrote in a post on The Stranger, a Seattle alternative newspaper.

"We are very proud of what we've accomplished together, including our 8th studio album which we have just put the finishing touches on," said a band statement. "We will miss Chris and wish him all the best in the next chapter of his career. We are excited about sharing new music, and seeing all of you very soon."

"Kintsugi" was a '15 release.

Death Cab For Cutie Discography

Full-Length Albums:

1998 Something About Airplanes
2000 We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes
2001 The Photo Album
2003 Transatlanticism
2005 Plans
2008 Narrow Stairs
2011 Codes And Keys
2015 Kintsugi

With a name like Death Cab For Cutie you'd expect a Speed Metal suicide band. But that's not what you get.

It's small wonder DCFC has gone through a series of drummers. Often there's little for a drummer to do. DCFC is strumming guitars and plaintive vocals. An '02 compilation, that included previously unreleased material, was titled "You Can Play These Songs With Chords." That just about sums it up.

In the run-up promotion to "Plans" Gibbard mentioned that the time "seemed right" to sign with a major label. No kidding. After kicking around for the better part of a decade, selling approximately 120 CDs to friends, family and the stray fan, that mode of operation had run dry.

When a group makes the major label leap, the sound can go through a transformation becoming more commercial. After all, major labels are in the business of making major dollars. Some fans, especially long time ones, often leave in disgust as the group finds a new and usually larger audience. DCFC is no different. But generally, the alternations evident on "Plans" are positive.

Gibbard can come up with intelligent, thoughtful lyrics. And DCFC are able to use keyboards and other instruments to good affect. Snooty critics love this sort of stuff because they can praise it to the ends of the earth knowing it will never become mainstream. But others might find the end result is a bit boring.

Gibbard's engaging conviction generates much of "Narrow Stairs" appeal. That he has something clever to say helps, especially on the 'epic' "I Will Possess Your Heart."

The rest of the DCFC catalog has an interesting song here and there but they are definitely in shoe gazing territory.


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