Some sad news from the band that mastered the sad song: Chris Walla, co-founder, guitarist and producer of beloved indie-rock outfit Death Cab For Cutie, announced he’d be leaving in the fall, following committed festival dates. Walla, particularly in the role of producer, helped shape the evocative sounds and atmospheres of the band’s most integral albums—Transatlanticism, Plans, and We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes. Among the statements released by the band last week were assurances that their as-yet-untitled follow-up to 2011’s Codes and Keys is essentially finished and being prepared for an early 2015 release. Walla, meanwhile, expressed gratefulness to his bandmates of 17 years and cryptically closed with how he “longs for the unknown” ahead.
In tribute to Walla’s work, we’ve collected a list of Death Cab’s Best Songs (limiting ourselves to just a couple tracks per album).
We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes
It was just their second album, but this song immediately established them as one of the best at the Break-Up song. The rhythm section, particularly, was integral to so many Death Cab songs, providing an indelible groove to get you into it no matter how bitter the words softly seethed from Gibbard’s spurned narrator. But then there’s the overall production of the song: the solemn organs rippling against the reverb-splashed guitars, a stellar bob-and-weave bassline and that cool-yet-eerie echoing fuzz upon the sequenced beats through the bridge.
Codes and Keys
Okay, listen: we’re here to save you from “You Are A Tourist.” We’re sure that’s the single that some (or all) of you would expect us to pick from their most recent release, but, good grief, that guitar riff is just so out of character, like U2’s The Edge stepped in for some ostentatious cameo. Just go back to the track that precedes it and replay “Doors Unlocked And Open.” Because if Death Cab are going to sound out of character, than we’d much rather hear them take on a cool, Krautrock-inspired motorik beat; through the first 30 seconds you’d swear you were almost listening to a Neu track. There’s a palpable dialing-up of intrigue here as the double-tracked guitars jangle into each other for a while before the bass tightens formation and bursts everything forward, fast and fierce, like a speeding car down the freeway head “for the unknown.”
This list could easily have been comprised of HALF (or more) of the songs from Transatlanticism, (or We Have The Facts); the downplayed danceability of the beat in “Title and Registration” or the soaring singalongability of “Sound Of Settling,” we could go on and on. But we’re going with this song: as it begins, the low, growling bass beats like a broken heart and the drums starts to lose their temper as the chimes of a piano sound serrated, like shards of love letters in the autumn breeze above. The signature cascading riff of the guitar over this fitful, intricate bassline keeps busy below the verses.
Much should be said for the breadth of Narrow Stairs. “No Sunlight” matched the enticing earworm pop of “Sound Of Settling,” with a bit more edge from that searing guitar against those delicate pianos. There’s the hard charging bass under the rubbery guitar flings of “Long Division.” And then, of course, “Cath…” might contain the quintessential “Death Cab guitar hook” within its opening bars. But we’ve gotta go for the elephant in the narrow stairwell, the bold, nine-minute statement, er, we mean Statement, of a song, “I Will Possess Your Heart.” This song, with its air of epic-ness, all but demands that you join it for a journey; the drums holding off for a solid 59 seconds before giving you anything to tap a toe to…but once the metallic-ring of the pianos plink downward to play off of an equally ruminatively rustling guitar, you’re in for the long haul.
You Can Play These Songs With Chords
Here we give an overarching shout-out this collection of alternate versions, demos and covers. Paste favorites include the indie-punk cyclones of “That’s Incentive” and the heavily distorted, dreamy saunter of “Hindsight.” Our stand-out is this version of “Prove My Hypothesis,” a single from 1999. This is pure, primordial Death Cab, where they uncannily achieved an allure with such a trudging beat, such sludgy guitars, such tranquilized atmospherics and murky vox. But they always found the right moment to rock out, jumping out of the song’s darkened bedroom window just before the three-minute mark and hitting the driveway running with clattering drums and torrential guitars. (For further trudge-and-sludge-styled Death Cab, see “Little Fury Bugs” from We Have The Facts).
The Photo Album
We wanted to send Walla some more love by featuring “I Was A Kaleidoscope,” a song he’d co-written with Gibbard. It’s worth hearing, but if we can only pick one Photo Album track then it’s gotta be “Movie Script!” That mesmerizing vocal melody hovers high but then dips so low. The drums pound on that floor tom as one meditative guitar is overlain with another markedly more eager guitar’s rounding riff. Fittingly, for this “movie script,” it achieves a cinematic air, like something that could soundtrack your own coming-of-age awakening.
Something About Airplanes
That woozy organ creeps in soft and sly for a few seconds until the drums loudly declare themselves, breaking the whole song open for the haunting wheeze of the synths to sway under caustically fuzzed guitars. Gibbard’s already demonstrating his knack for setting a scene with an English major’s diction deployed for self-deprecation.
Sometimes all you need are two notes. Striking upward, and then slamming downward. Go for the rock-gusto; it’s an ideal way to start out a record and a shock to the overall Death Cab system (having mastered the downbeat, dreary ballad several times over on the records leading up to this one). Oh, but listen closer and you get all the gurgled feedback and coated pianos that build around those two notes and the bridge bites with Ben Gibbard’s characteristically knotty poetics describing 30 dialogues bleeding into one…
You had us at “bah-dop buh-duh duh duh…” This inescapably catchy single substantially infused them into that curious indie co-opting zeitgest of the previous decade, right along with your Garden State and The O.C. and Pitchfork-doled-hipster-cred. Did it get overplayed? Sure. But is it a finely produced track? We certainly think so. Kudos to Walla, then; that’s why it’s here, so high, on our list.
We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes
Ben Gibbard takes the best of your bad moods while the band dresses up an atypical break-up ballad to make what might still be the best Death Cab song—particularly if you pair it with its extended “epilogue.” With a guitar riff that still hasn’t worn out after 15 years and 59 replays, the song is sharpened by buoyant drum bursts and Gibbard’s particular vocal melody that dips down and spaces out his words like his voice is dipping down the wavy groove of a half-pipe. “I’d squeeze a heart from my finger-tips / but I type too slow to make expressions stick / synapse to synapse, possibilities will thin or fade / and your wedding figurines…I’d melt, so I could drink them in.”
And then, the “Epilogue,” where the guitars pare back and the tempo goes from excited to solemn; the vocals closer, up front and fogged with more reverb as they discharge the most evocative of sour sentiments. It sets the scene for so many Death Cab songs to come, when Gibbard hauntingly swoons, “You were the one….” Emphasis on “were,” of course.