Death Cab for Cutie

Paul Wong
Death Cab for Cutie
You Can Play These Songs With Chords
Barsuk Records

You Can Play These Songs With Chords

Barsuk Records

Rating: three stars.

Death Cab for Cutie, in recent years, has been widely heralded as one of indie’s most important band, and for good reason. Their blend of Built to Spill-style arrangements and laid back, almost Belle and Sebastian storytelling (minus the Belle) is instantly gripping. Their latest release, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, is an interesting look into the past of this great band.

Chords is really two albums in one. The first eight tracks are a re-release of the band’s first recording, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, distributed on cassette back in 1997. Recorded on an eight-track by future Death Cab founders Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla, these tracks are definitely low-fi. Five of these tracks were later re-recorded for the band’s first LP, Something About Airplanes. Gibbard’s voice, void any of digital studio polishing save reverb, still contains his trademark saccharine; he’s both calming and angry at the same time. Lyrics like “Think I’m drunk enough to drive you home now / I’ll keep my mouth keep shut under lock and key, that’s rusted firm, no lie,” on “Champagne from a Paper Cup” are the typical fare for Death Cab for Cutie, known for their bitter, engrossing songs about remorse and lost love. Most of the first half of Chords follows the tried and true “sad & slow” pattern, except for the tempo-defying “That’s Incentive,” which could have easily been a b-side from a Modest Mouse album.

The first eight tracks culminate on the hypnotic “Line of Best Fit”, one surely to end up as a last track on several mixtapes. With lyrics like “These things take my time and energy / Don’t stand too close without apologies,” Gibbard ends the first half on a somber, worn out note. This song makes anything Yo La Tengo’s put out feel like caffeine by comparison.

In striking contrast, the second half of Chords begins with an incredibly upbeat cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man.” Gibbard does his best Morrissey impression that is a welcome change to the morose offerings of the first eight tracks. The remaining tracks are all rare or unreleased studio quality recordings arranged in chronological order, starting as far back as 1996. These are much closer to the Death Cab for Cutie known and loved by scenesters nationwide. Standout tracks include the sample laden “Flustered / Hey Tomcat,” the hopeful “Tomorrow,” and the Secret Stars cover “Wait.” The last track, “Army Corps of Architects” is also worthy of note, a soothing end to a somewhat haphazard collection of songs. The gentle rhythm section and subtle xylophone are simply beautiful.

You Can Play These Songs with Chords, while lacking the cohesiveness of a true album, is definitely a must-have for Death Cab fans. Others may find it a bit disjointed. Those new to the band should check out their earlier releases, particularly We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes or The Photo Album before picking up Chords. Only fans of the band will truly appreciate this collection of early tracks.

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