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November 17, 2017


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Death Cab For Cutie
The Photo Album (Barsuk Records)

By: Alex Steininger

Coming off of two critically-acclaimed albums laden with brilliant, shining moments, often songwriters either get stuck in a rut or get so full of themselves, they eventually run out of steam and churn out mediocre records they try to pass off as genius.

When I first put in Death Cab For Cutie's The Photo Album I was fearful that this had happened to front man Ben Gibbard and company. Once I was near the end of the album, I still wasn't sold on it. Then "Styrofoam Plates" hit me; an urgent, desperate attempt to try to exert the damage a deadbeat dad has left on a poor family:

"There is a saltwater film on the jar of the ashes/ I threw them to sea/ but a gust blew them backwards/ And a sting in my eyes/ which you then inflicted/ It's par for the course just as when you were living/ It's no stretch to say you were not quite a father/ but a donor of seeds to a poor single mother/ that would raise us alone/ we never saw the money/ it went down your throat, through the hole in your belly/ Thirteen years old in the suburbs of Denver/ Standing in line for Thanksgiving dinner/ At the Catholic Church/ the servers wore crosses".

After hearing Gibbard's shaky, frightened, and overly confused voice paint such a colorful, burning emotional song of this experience, I couldn't help but want to sit down with him over a beer and try and help talk him through all of the damage.

But, much more than wanting to help him, it immediately hit me. It wasn't that the album was bad. Quite contrary, it is a genuine, genius rock album so ripe with emotion and passion, the casual listen - which I was giving it - couldn't do it justice. It needed me to sit down with it and fully absorb it. And so I did.

After doing so, the album reached out at me, struck a chord, and hasn't left my CD player since. From the opening track of "Steadier Footing," a collage of thick and thin organ, slight percussion, faint electric guitar, and led by Gibbard's tired, almost-defeated, but genuine voice and acoustic guitar, the song delivers well-written, storytelling lyrics and pop hooks. A lonesome, home spun sounding song, it grabs you, sure, but it prepares you for what is to come.

"A Movie Script Ending" rushes in, full band in tact, delivering a slightly lush, slightly primitive sounding rock attack, giving you rough edges and polish in one package. "Information Travels Faster" keeps the emotional, hook-laden nuggets coming with a shaking, danceable pop ditty to pop your head and tap your toes too.

Besides "Styrofoam Plates," the other stand out track on this album is "Why You'd Want To Live Here," a song about the dirty city of angels - Los Angeles. Gibbard screams urgency through his soft, intimidated voice, all without screaming. Touching you with a rushing, vibrant warning to escape the city he sees as a complete shit hole, the longing for hometown Bellingham, WA and a cleaner America where the city and people treat you nicer, is what Gibbard and company are all about.

A truly mesmerizing album, Death Cab For Cutie hasn't lost their touch. The aptly titled The Photo Album shows you clear portraits of life through the eyes of the band. A skillful blend of soft and loud guitars, steadily thumping drums, and different shades of bass, DCFC's crafty pop songs are laden with emotion and smart lyrics. I'll give it an A+.15

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