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Death Cab For Cutie are one of the most popular bands in the world! If, that is, you are a member of Last.fm, the online music community that does for indie rock n'roll what Myspace does for sexual deviants. On the site, Death Cab are regularly found in the top ten artists of the week, along with Radiohead, Limp Bizkit, and other almost-mainstream-yet-not-quite bands. Led by frontman Benjamin Gibbard, a man who looks unnervingly like Jarvis Cocker, and can call Jenny Lewis a good friend, Death Cab have been steadily releasing albums for the past few years, gaining critical plaudits but by-and-large failing to break the mainstream. This is probably because their songs have no "wow" factor. "We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes" is an album which has an overall tone and style which is very contained, but whilst it does mean the album flows and feels like a continuous piece, it means nothing stands out and there are no songs which are obviously a slice of awesome cake.
Imagine a band like the Editors or Embrace. They work off music which is, essentially, bland. Sometimes they're able to overcome this flaw in the recording process and make a song which genuinely has moments of goodness in it, but for the most part they work the same old groove again and again, going nowhere but strangely gaining fans as they go, and Death Cab are the American version of that trend. Their music barely ever leaps up above a crawl, which is nice enough, but when you're faced with hearing the same song repeated 10 times in a row, you can see it gets a bit boring. Nevertheless, they march on regardless. Sometimes a song they make is interesting, but that sadly tends not to be the case. Which is a mighty shame, because in Gibbard they have one of the best lyricists of the new generation. Anybody who had heard his work with The Postal Service will know he can pen a tune - this is the man who wrote "Some Great Heights", for Whedon's Sake - but Lord knows he needs a better band behind him, because Death Cab are holding him back.
That's a controversial view to have on the internet, where Gibbard is hailed as a genius, but I defy him because I feel the need to hit you all with some Truth. This music, right here, is good, but not excellent. Tracks like "Little Fury Bugs" and "Scientist Studies" are alright on their own, but you're never going to put together a mixtape and think "yes yes yes, bring on the bland!" Both tracks go nowhere. Despite the interesting, muted guitar of the former, it struggles to scrape along at a decent pace, and not even the late addition of some doom-laden quietdrums can add anything to it. Likewise, the latter starts off reasonably promisingly but quickly it becomes clear that there's very little to be gained from it. There are some smashy drums and distortion thrown in, but there's no feeling of progression or achievement musically from the band or for the listener. It also has one of the most infuriating endings of any song I've ever heard.
Many of the songs aren't bad, though, and some are in fact good, and worthwhile listening to. "For What Reason" isn't an example of one of the moments of interest (I'm saving those for last), but it isn't a bad piece of music. It's short, with fading guitars chiming out amid pared-down drums, whilst Gibbard chants out the lyrics indeterminably. He has a decent voice, by the way, but here it seems too often to get bogged down in the downcast revelry of the music, and becomes merely another tone amid all the musical sleet. "No Joy In Mudville", at over 6 minutes, is the longest track here, and it certainly feels like it. Aimlessly wandering around on a sparse line of drums and chimes, it goes nowhere and goes there bloody slowly. After about four minutes there are splashes of colour to the grey, but it comes too late and certainly isn't as rewarding a payoff as, say, The New Pornographers could have provided. The spindly guitars of "405" offer a brief window of interest, and the song certainly seems to be going somewhere. Gibbard masks his vocals with a strong fuzzy vocoder, and... it's lame. Seriously. It's what I imagine it must sound like to live inside the head of Esther Ranzen, and I can think of nothing worse than that. It buzzes and flails quietly around with no effect, just like Esther. Having said that, it doesn't try to sell me the lies of evil credit card companies, so it has that to its advantage.
Lowell, MA is a track where a few positives can be drawn from, with Gibbard letting his voice fly around. He sounds like a sober version of Brighteyes, or perhaps a little like a higher-pitched Ryan Adams. He has a sweetness in his voice, which he too often tries down. There's a lot of grumbling in this album. Yet despite this, there are four tracks which are worth listening to. The second half of the album is dominated by "Company Calls" and "Company Calls Epilogue", and the first of the two is the most uplifting and free the band sound throughout the album. It's no surprise, too, that it's by far one of the best songs here. Gibbard runs through his lyrics quickly, with some winding quick guitars behind him that jump out for the chorus. The quick pace, in addition to the upbeat nature of the music, means that this track is the most memorable one here, and well worth listening to. Company Calls Epilogue is a more subdued affair, but no less effective for that. It recalls several of the lyrics from the previous track, most notably the "synapse to synapse" moment which opens this one. He's covered in a veil of echoes and the guitars plod next to the drums, but there's a compelling hook in the words and Gibbard's delivery. Put together, these two songs provide a relief from the dullness of the music around them.
Yet the highlight of the album comes, unsettlingly, from the first two songs. Whilst track 2, "The Employment Pages", sounds like it was sung underwater due to the rippling effects present, it works. It's like something Radiohead could possibly have conjured up (although they would have added some guitar or snarly electro stuff), and is gruffly beautiful. It's another slow-burner, but this time the song actually pays off on it's promise. It doesn't kick off, it doesn't deviate from the musical pattern it begins with, but somehow that's enough. However, the best song on the album is... "Title Track". I've listened to this one twenty more times than any of the others. As soon as it kicks in you're hooked into it's downbeat atmosphere, a gloom propelled along by the music which dips and ebbs round, casting shadows over Gibbard's soothsaying. Here, everything comes together and works, connecting and sparking, and creates the one true moment where it seems that Death Cab are truly as good as everyone says. It's just a shame that there are nine more tracks to come. You can sense on this album that there's a good band struggling to break out, but the composed and simple nature of the music, which never attempts to be truly vital or interesting, mugs down everything and sinks the album into a relative obscurity. There are songs here that are worth having a listen to, but I don't recommend you splash out on the whole album just for them. This is a case, I believe, where the mainstream obscurity of a band is completely understandable.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes
2 Employment Pages
3 For What Reason
4 Lowell MA
6 Little Fury Bugs
7 Company Calls
8 Company Calls
9 No Joy In Mudville
10 Scientist Studies