There are times when one doesn’t hear a great band because one has never been exposed to it. There are also occasions when one hears a great band simply by accident, quickly becomes a huge admirer, and goes on to recommend it to almost everyone. In my personal experience, American alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie would come under the latter category.
While working at EMI Music over five years ago, I handled the repertoire of Warner Music, with whom EMI had a licensing agreement. Every few weeks, Warner would send copies of CDs it had released — or was due to release — in the US. Death Cab for Cutie’s 2005 album ‘Plans’ was one such instance, and for many months, I never bothered to listen to it, probably because I found the band’s name as weird as Britney Spears’ dress sense.
Death Cab for Cutie??? Was it dark and deathly-depressing, was it plain taxi music, or was it boringly cute bubblegum-pop?
While leaving EMI, I took a whole lot of CDs home, mainly because there was nowhere to dump them in office. Most gathered dust for a few months. In one sudden brainwave in early 2007, I played ‘Plans’. A cross between a ‘Let’s-see-what-it’s-like’ approach and a ‘Try-it-before-you-dump-it’ decision.
I didn’t really pay attention to the first few songs. But suddenly, ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ hit me like a bullet — wonderful tune, great voice, outstanding lyrics, qualities of a clear-cut anthem. Must have heard it 20 times at a stretch, and then made sure I carried it everywhere to play in front of friends. Almost everyone who heard the song was converted, including the tone-deaf. Of course, I cursed myself royally for not releasing it while I could officially do so. What a waste!
Today, Death Cab is my favourite band from the 2000s. There’s something about vocalist Ben Gibbard’s heavenly voice, compositional style, guitar and piano that captivate me totally. The support of guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla, bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr makes it a perfect blend. Yes, I have loved other 2000s bands like Coldplay, Kings Of Leon, Maroon 5, Arcade Fire, Doves, the Decemberists and The National — all of them outstanding in their own way — but Death Cab just has that extra edge, in my hideous opinion.
Though the band was formed in 1997, and was primarily known for its 2003 release ‘Trans-Atlanticism’, it actually went trans-Atlantic with ‘Plans’ two years later. Besides the classic ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’, the album had brilliant numbers like ‘Soul Meets Body’, ‘Crooked Teeth’ and ‘What Sarah Said’. The next album ‘Narrow Stairs’ is best known for ‘I Will Possess Your Heart’ (whose intro is just out of the world), ‘Grapevine Fires’ and ‘No Sunlight’, though overall, it wasn’t quite as consistent as ‘Plans’.
So far, so cute. Superb vocals and great guitar riffs — the basic ingredients of good rock music. The band could have stuck to that winning formula forever. But it didn’t.
Cut to the latest release ‘Codes and Keys’, and Death Cab has gone in for a more keyboard-driven, ambient, moody sound. Though some of the fans may not have welcomed this change, it comes as an amazing proof of the group’s versatility and willingness to experiment and move on. Yes, one does find influences of Brian Eno, David Bowie, later-day Radiohead and even Pink Floyd here and there, but the compositions are so remarkable that one would love to keep them on repeat mode.
My favourite from ‘Codes And Keys’ is ‘Unobstructed Views’, with an intro that just keeps building up, and a finale that makes you long for more. ‘You Are A Tourist’, ‘Home Is A Fire’ and ‘Monday Morning’ grow on repeated hearing, and ‘St Peter’s Cathedral’ grabs you with its lyrics and melodic simplicity.
‘Codes And Keys’ is one of the nominees for Best Alternative Album at the forthcoming Grammys. Needless to say, the band has attained a pretty huge following in the rock/ alternative community. At the moment, it may be more of cult worship than mass fan-dom, but I’m sure people are now discovering it more because it is showing the right consistency and getting the right exposure, and not by sheer accident.