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Sensitive Boys: Death Cab for Cutie, in line for the emo throne.

Picture Perfect

Death Cab for Cutie's new release, 'The Photo Album,' paints pretty pictures

By Susan Moll

You'd be hard-pressed not to find musical skeletons in most peoples' closets. Everybody has them, but whether or not they're willing to risk ridicule, ostracism or eternal damnation by revealing them is another matter entirely. You might have to dig for a while to get at them, but they're there, all right. Even Death Cab for Cutie guitarist and producer Chris Walla has one--let the pointing and laughing begin!: Jurassic prog-rockers Marillion.

"Yeah," Walla laughs, "but that one's still bloody!" Compared to other youthful indiscretions committed in record-emporium aisles, though, Marillion is almost a forgivable offense. "There was a time when I was really into the supergeeky prog-rock, definitely. Terrifying stuff." The mindset was "It doesn't matter that it sounds good; it matters that it's smart and forward-thinking and progressive, as it were."

Not a bad modus operandi for any budding troubadour; at any rate, it's one Death Cab for Cutie has hung onto, minus all the nasty prog bits. Critics the world over took turns beating off to the tune of We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes and the Forbidden Love EP, their last two offerings.

The median age of Death Cab for Cutie is 25, and its members are making sounds most melody makers take entire careers to arrive at. They're not jaded, they're not cynical. They're not the cocky assholes they could be--no pleather, no eyeliner, no backward baseball caps, no ball-grabbing.

Rather, they're up-and-coming princes of sensitive-guy indie pop poised to claim their place on the throne between Built to Spill and Elliott Smith. To a perpetually sodden Pacific Northwest, they're proving there are indeed signs of intelligent life in the post-grunge universe; to the rest of us, they're proving you don't have to be a pants-pissing emo wankster or a complete and total girlieman to express heartfelt sentiment.

Death Cab for Cutie's fourth outing, The Photo Album (Barsuk), has "concept album" scribbled all over it, each song a snapshot, every snapshot a still narrative. "I grew up on concept records as it were, things that move from Point A to Point B in one wave of the hand," recalls Walla. "Records like Sgt. Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon. ... Just records that have an obvious destination and have a series of little things that are contributing to the goal of arriving at that destination." And even though The Photo Album wasn't conceived with that framework in mind, "it all kinda ties in together, like the title and the artwork and the stories and everything," he muses. "It's a little bit of a photo journal--a bit of an A/V diary or something."

Diary being the key word. Singer and guitarist Ben Gibbard "pretty much writes from the gut; he pulls things out a lot," Walla explains. "He writes about what he's thinking and what he's feeling. I think back to the photo-album thing--it's a travelogue of last-year-and-a-half for him. I know that 'Movie Script Ending' is 'I wish we were back in Bellingham when things were simple.' "

But during The Photo Album 's inception, things were anything but. The year 2000 turned out to be fraught with more mayhem than Woodstock '99, minus all the raping: Walla tumbled down a staircase and fractured his foot, Gibbard was mowed down by a car while riding his bike, and bassist Nick Harmer was rendered temporarily blind in a waterskiing accident. ("Nothing really bad happened to [drummer] Michael [Schorr] so we're crossing our fingers.")

Thanks in part to Death Cab for Cutie's collective convalescence, The Photo Album 's contents are markedly simpler than many of their predecessors. Extensive postproduction knob-twiddlings weren't needed--the songs' cerebral, from-the-hip pop ethos would've drowned in them. Walla's priority involved "building something that's appropriate for a vocal or a melody or a particular part of the singer's range. If the song's a rock song, you can't try and make it not be a rock song. I think you can certainly try, but more times than not it fails. I mean, I do a fair amount of nudging things around, but I always try to keep some sort of mood intact."

As Death Cab for Cutie grows and evolves, things are becoming increasingly clear. "I think more than anything there's a lot of confidence that's happened," contemplates Walla. "Not even so much as in our outward presentation but in dealing with one another. It's a lot easier now for me--if Ben brings something in and it sounds good, then it sounds good and that's fine. But if it's not working, nobody's afraid to say, 'We need to work on that.' ... We've gotten really good at communicating together." After all--as Marillion once said--the darkroom unleashes imagination.

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE performs Nov. 17-18 at 9pm at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10. (415.885.0750).

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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