The 15th Anniversary: Death Cab for Cutie’s “The Photo Album”
Celebrating Under the Radar's 15th Anniversary and the Best Albums of 2001
Dec 28, 2016 Web Exclusive
Under the Radar's very first print issue came out in December 2001. In honor of our 15th Anniversary some of our writers are reflecting on some of their favorite albums (and movies and TV shows) from 2001, that are also celebrating their 15th anniversary.
By the time Death Cab for Cutie recorded The Photo Album, their expression of grungy indie rock with a kiss had spread well enough beyond the harbors of Bellingham, Washington that it may have felt like the time had come to boost the bandwidth of their broadcast. Its enhanced sonorous qualities might point to an acknowledgement that their audience had grown and a will to expand accordingly. What formed was a lucent demarcation of Death Cab's zone in the alternative sphere. They went from sounding like a band that played down the street from Built to Spill, to fabricating vivid storyboards brought to life in their own language of graphic guitar and keyboard. Shot with cleaned lenses, The Photo Album shook off the garage dust and dealt the sensation of a post rain-shower breeze in a room of open windows. It glistened, popped, and absorbed, all through charged emissions of its indie spirit. Most of all, it fashioned its own anima, seizing an identity to stand out in a genre that had begun to see a population swell at the time of its release.
Arriving just one year after their second album, We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes-where the melodic space that came to define Death Cab emerged on the open road momentum of "405"-The Photo Album bounded forward in song arrangements and bloomed full in the production color found by guitarist Chris Walla. Walla's focus was crystal in honing the more elaborate style they were beginning to embrace. Going on to produce all of Death Cab's discography until his departure in 2014, this would be his breakthrough, introducing a refreshing mood-pop approach that would uplift vocalist Ben Gibbard's songwriting for albums to come. The harmonic assembly of instruments is more balanced than a 20-foot tall Jenga tower, each element entering on dramatic cue in support of Gibbard's accounts.
As for Gibbard, he had a lot to say on this record, assuming the role of protagonist with a newfound gusto. Every song was indeed a photo, a capture of a memory from a life in motion and Gibbard's voice describes them in tones both conversant and lullaby melodic, poetic and investigative, respectfully pleading, then irascible. There was an attitude perhaps born from being at a peak of observant and creative sharpness. This later softened, as it does with most writers as they become more reflective and forgiving, but on these takes he's letting off steam, relentless in an opinionated voice that borrowed from imagined perspectives. Reveals like, "I let you bum a smoke/you quit this winter past/I've tried twice before/but like this it just would not last," are recurring, strengthening the definition of Gibbard's narrative character.
And though it's an album bound in impressive artistic cohesiveness, there are stand out tunes that are magnetic. The dancing duet of Wurlitzer key steps hopping out of the way of hotwire guitar jabs on "Blacking Out the Friction," the surging finale of "Styrofoam Plates," an allegory with a locomotive percussive climax that highlights then drummer Michael Schorr's impeccable timekeeping and brawn, and the wide-eyed grandeur of "Coney Island," with its high tide rush of pop elements that washed through the speakers, all unique frames in a boldly conceived story.
The Photo Album marks a turning point on Death Cab for Cutie's timeline and in their artistic trajectory, a period early on in their gradual transition from a straight ahead indie fuzz-rock band to a major label, Grammy nominated indie pop group. You can hear the origins of the latter, yet they are still driven confidently by the organically uninhibited creativity of the former. It also happens to be one of those great keep-you-company kind of records, one that played through your earphones in the small town you hadn't been to before, or while walking to a first date, fueling your wonder. Ultimately, it became a companion, embracing the bright young dreamer, setting out into the day or night to happen upon a little magic, a memory to capture on film. When taken together, photos shape a whole story. Independently, they touch on all the characteristics that shape a personality. That's why the title is so apt for this collection of alternative rock gems.
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