Friday, January 20, 2006

Best Music of 2005 (Part 4)

Death Cab for Cutie - Plans

Often I get asked, "What is Indie Rock?" People challenge me to define it. And I try my best, usually failing. Indie Rock is as much a feeling as it is a genre. But in the future, whenever I get asked that question, I'm going to say, "Listen to Death Cab. That's indie rock, personified." Their recent mainstream success (The OC, SNL, a major label) is definitely far from the "indie" troupes that separate the genres, but their sound has always been what carried Death Cab and that does not change with this album.

Plans is the sound of a fully mature band in a very philosophical place about where they are in their career and their lives (reminds me of Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, minus the pretension). Continuing immediately where Transatlanticismleft off, Plans is subtle and deep, relying as much on Gibbard's sentimental lyrics as on the sound of a guitar. This is an album with a clear lyrical theme (Love + Death) that is confidently portrayed throughout these eleven songs. Gibbard is at the height of songwriting here, throwing images out at such powerful, gritted-teeth, speed and such superior ability, it's almost overwhelming. Like all Death Cab records, this album reveals its subtlety with time.

I've listened to probably every word and chord of Death Cab's career and I've watched their fascinating tour-documentary, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully, a couple times, so I can safely say I know Death Cab. I know their emotions, their ups-and-downs. I know where Ben Gibbard stops and Death Cab comes in. And so I know this album is quintessentional Death Cab and yet, it's pensive. That's probably intentional, part of the Endings theme that runs throughout the album. But I know this band, I know they like to rock out to end a song, I know they like to make big, bold statements, and as much power as there is in Plans, I also know they're holding back. For what? Probably their next album. But maybe they were a little afraid to make their big Major debut with a bang. Maybe there's just been too much press.

Regardless, Plans is definitely worth a listen. Just like Radiohead's fifth album, there's shades of every single previous record here. "Marching Bands of Manhattan" reminds me of the first song of the first album, "Bend to Squares." "Soul Meets Body" is a little Postal Service, a little "Title and Registration." "Summer Skin" is any number of love-lorn childhood songs (see: The Photo Album).

"Different Names for the Same Thing" is a breathe of fresh, experimental, air. Its strange structure and curious sound effects sound like a band that's not Death Cab and that's a good thing here. This seems like a good place to shout-out, Chris Walla, Death Cab's second-in-command, their lead guitarist and producer. His talent is everywhere here and his production stylings (i'm hesitating to put the word genius all over this sentence.. I don't want to embarrass him) is so strong, it's really been the backbone of this band and the last two albums.

"I Will Follow You Into The Dark" is a dark song that would fit perfectly on a Decemberists record. Meanwhile, "Your Heart Is An Empty Room" sounds like it should be running over the end credits to The Breakfast Club. I love the guitar lick that runs around the chorus. "Someday You Will Be Loved" is eerily similar to Transatlanticism's "Tiny Vessels", but in a good way.

"Crooked Teeth" is a song with literally dozens of great images and lines. Lesser writers (like myself) read or listen to stuff like this and just sit back in slack-jawed awe. Is this song about an erstwhile relationship or a two-bit suburban town? "What Sarah Said" is the heart of the album, like the title track from the previous record, a powerful statement that cements the themes and direction of each. And a perfect indicator of why Transatlantsicism was so perfect and Plans falls slightly short. Where "Transatlanticism" let itself breathe and flap its wing and challenge itself, "What Sarah Said" gets to the point and then leaves, quietly.

"Brothers in a Hotel Bed" is rather vague, a disappointing choice for a follow-up to the strong lead-in track. This would have been a perfect place to put a song like "We Looked Like Giants," an all-out rock explosion. And coda "Stable Song" is an unnecessary rehash of Transatlanticism's "Lack of Color."

The rather-weak ending to a strong album makes for my lukewarm-to-medium reaction to Plans. Definitely a noteworthy album in any year but in terms of a Death Cab album, I can't shake this feeling that they could have done better.


Shawn said...

I can see where you think Plans falls short a bit. I think they didn't want to fall into the Modest Mouse syndrome and put out a full kick ass album with a singable "one hit wonder" feel which would quickly make people think they have never done anything before and probably wont do much after. This album is subtle enough for a first time listener to say wow that was interesting - I wonder what they have done in the past? They don't want people to be stuck on plans and never listen to the rest of their albums. I think it was a wise and deliberate choice to make this an album that wouldn't make a number 1 single. After all, they have a career to think about.

Elad said...

good point! I agree. I also like the term "Modest Mouse Syndrome."

Shawn said...

well the term totally makes sense

Modest Mouse is just like Death Cab in the fact that they have put out a shit load of albums in the past and have a big following in the indie world. And then "Float On" comes out and suddenly Modest Mouse are a one hit wonder. And Float on doesnt sound like anything else they ever did so the pop listener doesn't stay interested.

Death Cab needed to be very careful in not putting out a great song and ruining everything they have worked on up until now. They want their history and their future to resinate with fans.

Sure people will say that the true fans will listen no matter what - but the whole point of making albums is to keep on selling them. And even if D. Cab is "indie" they aren't going to screw their chances for future success by letting people think they only got one good song in them.

Shawn said...

and interesting enough the album is named "plans" like they are making deliberate choices to plan for the future

Shawn said...

p.s. i love this album

Elad said...

Great points, Shawn!

But you know better than anyone how strong Death Cab CAN be. after we saw them last year, you were aglow for months. Don't you think some of that energy, that ROCKiness is lacking in Plans? don't you wish one or two more songs were more upbeat and immediate?

Shawn said...

sure I do, but I have patience. I think there are enough rockin songs on this album to keep me satisfied until the next album (single/EP) comes out.

and hey im still listening to the older albums to get my fill

Elad said...

again, you're right.

Another thing that impresses me about Death Cab is how strong those previous albums still sound after all this time and so many listen.

Shall we rank them for our own curiousity?

Elad said...

1 - The Photo Album
2 - Transatlanticism
3 - Something About Airplanes
4 - Plans
5 - We Have The Facts and We're Voting Yes

tough, actually. should really be a tie for third because I love the first album for pure sentimental reasons.

Shawn said...

1. Photo album
(1a - Give Up, Postal Service)
2. Transatlanticism (so hard to spell)
3. Plans
4. Something About Airplanes
5. We Have the Fact and We're Voting Yes

The last two albums on my list I am not as familiar with as the more recent albums because the copies I have are not of top quality. But I will stick with my rankings anyway.

roofers said...
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LoriB said...

Maybe one day i'll catch up to u.

Hey i'm getting there, listening to the xm indie station.

Elad said...

you're on the right track, lori.