Photo Finish

If you've got the time and/or the money and/or the sanity to keep close tabs on America's bustling indie-rock underground, you no doubt know that quite a few of the scruffy slouches who run things down there are double-dipping in an increasingly shallow artistic gene pool. Simply put, stagnation's stinking up the place, with fewer and fewer bands making attempts at invention or innovation or even interesting ideas, choosing instead to reiterate the advances made by the form's legitimate trailblazers: Superchunk, Tortoise, Fugazi, Matmos. It's silly, of course, to expect bands that record for small labels to skirt creative stasis more readily than ones that record for multinational corporations based on that criterion alone--for every Sugar Ray clone vying for TRL space it's only logical to expect a Jim O'Rourke wannabe clawing for the cover of Magnet.

And the nation's current sociopolitical climate is certainly no help: The support system for exceptionally well-considered tunes about unrequited love has been all but pulled out from underneath whomever's scraping toward those accomplishments, suspended while people attempt to regain an appreciation for material CNN doesn't cover and to chip away at the guilt and confusion that process surely involves. But that doesn't mean we can't be disappointed when we're presented with increasingly diluted reflections of a potent original, does it? Is it so wrong to demand excellence where excellence so potentially exists?

Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla, the two guys who lead the Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie, are probably wishing I'd just back off. The three of us are sitting around a coffee table in the middle of their Manhattan-based publicist's office, talking about their band and its new record, The Photo Album, and maybe I'm going a little far with this why-do-we-settle-for-mediocrity? bit. I'm going on about how few bands in the indie-rock underground ever successfully attain a "sound," a distinctive spin on an old formula that marks a band's work as its own. They're nodding and seem to be agreeing with me, even when I think I start to invade their side of the table, but when I stop talking and finally take a breath, they just sort of stare at me.

"I see us as a guitar band, pretty much," offers singer-guitarist Gibbard, who would be perfect for Kevin Arnold's best friend if The Wonder Years people ever do a college-years sequel. "Maybe a little keyboards and stuff, but I never see us as doing anything drastically different, enough to warrant our own sound. I hope that the music that we make is reflective of what we want it to sound like, and I'm assuming that as we continue to make records, we'll be defining ourselves more and more."

Well, that part's true, at least. In 1999, when a tiny Seattle indie called Barsuk Records released Something About Airplanes, Death Cab's debut album, the American rock underground thought it had a junior Built to Spill on its hands--a young guitar band from the Pacific Northwest with one pocket full of impeccably crafted melodies and the other stuffed with big guitar effects and dashboard confessionals about the stars and the moon. And the world was pretty much right: Airplanes is an impressive debut, but it's not easy to consider the music outside of its context--not necessarily a surprising thing, given the culture of deflated expectation Gibbard and Walla are sick of hearing about.

But somewhere within the 12 months that separated Airplanes and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, the band's extraordinary sophomore set, Death Cab developed a vocabulary that included plenty of their own letters and numbers: a cavernous production aesthetic that guitarist Walla's crafted to make every song sound like an underwater fireworks display; a minor-key harmonic grounding that occasionally spirals out into wallops of warm-blanket beauty; a melodic approach to pop songwriting that places the careful, spare layering of individually realized elements over the more typical massed-voice method all those Beach Boys and Phil Spector geeks try to emulate.

Another 19 months on and The Photo Album proves the discovery wasn't a fluke. Death Cab's subtlest record, it's a gorgeous meditation as much on the band's own sound as on romantic disillusionment Gibbard sings from his heart's place halfway down his sleeve. As warm as its deep-yellow cover art, it's the kind of record you curl up with when it's cold outside, searching for comfort within the limitless folds of pillowy guitar lines and marshmallow organ drones.

Opener "Steadier Footing" practically defines the pitch of cozy solitude: "It's gotten late, and now I want to be alone," Gibbard sings in his unexpectedly high voice, while a distant timpani sounds out a heartbeat-like thud and a fragile tremolo guitar protects him from what he doesn't want to hear. Lots of bands reach for this type of sad-sack aural poetry, but few realize it as convincingly as Death Cab for Cutie does on its third record.

Walla, who looks kind of like that blond kid David Silver left behind for the Brenda-and-Brandon set in Beverly Hills, 90210, is as bashfully reticent as Gibbard when I ask how he captured The Photo Album's dusky luminance. "Well, I know that, pound for pound, there are probably more melodies in what we're doing than in a lot of what I hear on the radio," he says. "Like, there are a lot of different instruments that carry melodies; instead of sort of rhythm-guitar parts and big clunky-chorded piano parts or whatever, everything has a melody."

More than that, I think to myself, back in rock-philosophy mode, it's the way songwriter Gibbard and producer Walla's particular skills intertwine that lends the music they make together its special signature--a sort of scruffy-slouch version of Lennon/McCartney, where each guy's strengths fit right in with the other's, and who does what becomes as tricky to tell for us as it is for them.

"It gets to the point where it's really hard to keep track of sounds and performances and songs," Walla says, maybe starting to approach the wavelength I'm trying to invite them to, "to keep them all straight. That's just how it's been so far." When the confusion sounds this good, who cares if they ever figure it out?

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Mikael Wood