Video: Charly Bliss – “Westermarck”
From Guppy, out now on Barsuk Records.
I love power pop. And this is awesome.
John Vanderslice may reveal a sense of humor on his website, but in his songs, he doesn’t have a lot of uplifting things to say about life. What he does say, however, he says beautifully. His patented “sloppy hi-fi” sound is amazing – lush, deep and raw at the same time. Cellar Door is one of the best-produced recordings I’ve heard, and it’s where Vanderslice shines. Of course, it’s no surprise since he owns Tiny Telephone, an analog recording studio in San Francisco. It affords him tight control over the recording process, and that comes through in the music.
His songs come across as a blend of Nick Drake and early Peter Gabriel. They’re as beautiful as a frozen bird. Example from “Pale Horse” (mp3): “from the haunts of daily life / where is waged the daily strife / common wants and common cares / cuts the human heart with tears.” The whole album is full of observations like this. If you’re feeling depressed, this thing won’t cheer you up. But if you’re relatively stable, Cellar Door is full of bleak, beautiful sadness finely wrought with exquisite music.
Tons of free Vanderslice mp3s are available from his site.
According to dictionary.com, “transatlanticism” is not a word. When searching the definition, after informing you of this fact, the site prompts you “Did you mean trans atlanticism?” and then tells you that’s not a word either. The fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary defines “transatlantic” as “on the other side of the Atlantic” or “spanning or crossing the Atlantic.” It seems that the very act of trying to find a definition for this word sums up the feeling of the album itself—trying to put a name to a feeling that cannot be described. With their latest full-length release, Death Cab For Cutie has validated “transatlanticism” as a word. The songs on this album are restless, gorgeous, expansive, and, well, transatlantic.
Love and loss have always been themes explored in Death Cab’s music. Part of the reason it works so well is because of the contrast between their lyrical content and the way the music itself sounds. The most successful example of this is with “The Sound of Settling,” with its “ba-ba, ba-ba” choruses, handclaps, and ringing guitars. It takes you several listens to fully let the sadness of the lyrics sink in and realize with some irony that kids at shows are going to most likely be gleefully singing along to lyrics like “Are you this fleeting? / Old age is just around the bend.” In the breathless, angry, driven “We Looked Like Giants,” singer Ben Gibbard puts it in almost Puritanical terms: “Goddamn the black night / with all its foul temptations.”
Elsewhere, topics that have become indie rock staples are revisited—failed relationships, absent parents (“Death of an Interior Decorator”), tender love songs (“Passenger Seat”), themes that Death Cab has expanded upon previously which would sink into cliche in less capable hands. The beauty of this album is that it feels both intensely personal and universal at the same time. The stunning, eight-minute title track builds to a chorus of “I need you so much closer,” which will most assuredly become an anthem to long-distance relationships everywhere. Yet the listener feels almost like he is reading a diary, like he is witnessing something that he shouldn’t.
Death Cab for Cutie has fashioned a career out of wearing its bleeding, broken heart on its sleeve without trying or ever feeling overwrought, and that is what makes them so compelling. With Transatlanticism they have taken this concept, to borrow a phrase from Gibbard’s side project, to “such great heights” that it’s impossible not to be moved.
Yes, we may be in the year 2003. But everywhere you look on MTV or modern rock radio, shades of the mid-90s are everywhere haunting us, reminding us the mistake we made by supporting the artists of this now obsolete era in the first place. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between Creed and Candlebox, or Nickelback and Seven Mary Three. Weezer are still hanging around, albeit a shell of their collective former self. Superdrag made a career out of “Who Sucked out the Feeling?” that lasted until the band broke up a couple of months ago, an incredible feat for a one-hit wonder. The same can be said for Nada Surf, who amazingly are back with a second wind and a new album.
The sad part of it all is that there is nothing to be found on Let Go, Nada Surf’s third album, that didn’t die out almost a decade ago. Sure, the band may be on upper-tier indie label Barsuk now, and they might be more akin to texturing their songs with multiple layers of instruments (surely the influence of sharing labels with Death Cab for Cutie), but underneath it all is the same ordinary rock that was once cutting-edge, now relegated to Coors Light commercials (see: “Hi-Speed Soul”).
None of the songs on Let Go pass for even a fraction of memorable—after repeated listens there still aren’t any melodies that stick out. “Blonde on Blonde”, for example, tries to be touching and instead just drags on. “Cats and dogs are coming down / 14th St. is gonna drown / Everyone else rushin’ round / I’ve got Blonde on Blonde on my portable stereo / It’s a lullabye from a giant golden radio.” The lyrics rely on 8th grade symbolism and blatant name-dropping, but in the end they still can’t hide the fact that the song is just boring. Nada Surf must love the loping pace “Blonde on Blonde” walks along, however, because the band alternates between “rockers” and songs that follow the same formula as “Blonde on Blonde” (minus the Bob Dylan references).
I will give credit where it’s due, and “Treading Water” is a diamond in the rough. It’s the only song that attempts energetic and actually finds it. Still, one out of twelve isn’t nearly good enough to warrant giving Let Go a chance, unless you’re actually looking for a mid-90s alterna-lite revival. Otherwise, ignore all of the hype that has come with the band’s drop to the indies and second rise to popularity. Like our faithful leader Dubbya says, “Fool me once, shame on… shame on you. Fool me tw— …can’t get fooled again.”