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Life in a Northern Town 

Death Cab for Cutie's latest, The Photo Album, is a bittersweet collection of musical snapshots. Melancholy never sounded this good.

Unfolding with the languid grace and hazy, blurred colors of a remembered summer romance, Death Cab for Cutie traipse through a minefield of memories, negotiating emotional egress in such a way to avoid blowing their hearts to bits. From a son's squelched anger, expressed through an evasive epitaph for an alcoholic, deadbeat father ("Styrofoam Plates"), to gentle, road-worn reminiscences ("A Movie Script Ending"), to two people reunited by chance, who "talk about the people we've met in the last five years, and will we remember them in 10 more" ("Steadier Footing"), DCFC transform a shoebox full of tattered snapshot sketches into their latest release, The Photo Album. It's the quartet's most polished and assured release to date, imbued with their hypnotic, indie-pop style, Ben Gibbard's airy, Martschian (Built to Spill's Doug Martsch) vocals, exhibiting the bittersweet tenor that, judging from geographical contemporaries such as Quasi, Modest Mouse and Elliott Smith, must come from something in the water.

"I think the very nature of being a Northwesterner--it's gray nine months out of the year and it's cloudy and drizzly a lot of the time--lends itself to the more melancholy aspects of life," says Gibbard via cell phone from the band's van as they're heading toward Milwaukee. "Every time we tour it's great to see those other parts of the country, but it makes me realize how much I love the Northwest when I get back."

Before the band formed in Bellingham, Wash., in 1997, Gibbard, working on a degree in environmental chemistry, was roommates with future DCFC bassist Nick Harmer. According to Gibbard, Harmer, a drama major, was rarely to be found. "We were driving around and reminiscing about college days and how I would be locked in my room, yelling at my physics book four hours a day," he recalls. "Nick asked me at one point, 'Did you ever see me doing a paper or reading a book?' And I was like, 'No, I never did,' and he was like, 'Exactly.'"

It was the underground success of his four-track home recordings (recorded by future DCFC guitarist Chris Walla), collected and released on cassette under the Death Cab moniker as You Can Play These Songs' Chords, that led Gibbard to pull together a band, a matter further impelled by a disappointing post-graduate internship for an oil company. "Rock 'n' roll saved me from a lifetime of lab work," he proudly proclaims. But he admits that it was the culmination of a lifelong daydream. "I can't remember a time when I didn't want to learn how to play the guitar or be in a band."

The release of the band's debut album, Something About Airplanes, and last year's follow-up, We Have The Facts and We're Voting Yes, were greeted with glowing critical accolades. Last Fall's Forbidden Love EP was No. 12 in Spin's Top 20 Releases of 2000, and Gibbard was even interviewed for Seventeen magazine. It's been a head-turning couple of years, but he tries to keep it in perspective by focusing on the future.

"It's very flattering to receive so many glowing reports, but we always take it with a grain of salt," he says. "I think it's a disservice to sit back and kind of get caught up in the critical praise. Personally, I'm really more concerned with 'Did I write a good song this month?' than that someone gave us a really good review of the last record. I think in order to keep moving forward you have to be more concerned with what you're doing, than what people are saying about what you've already done."

Gibbard says the band received a major label sniff about three years ago, around the time of their first album, but that there's been nothing since, something he doesn't regret. "It seems like the climate at 'big rock radio' and major label culture is just continuing to plummet, so I just can't think of a worse time to entertain the idea of moving to a major than right now," he says. "We're doing fine without it. I like keeping the economics of being in this band simple and bring in as few outside players as we need to make records happen."

Asked about the influences on his elliptical songwriting style, Gibbard offers Blake Schwarzenbach (Jawbreaker, Jets to Brazil) and Elliott Smith. The latter's not much of a surprise; Gibbard readily admits that any similarity in his writing style with Smith is not coincidental. "He's been a big influence on me," he says. "That first record, Roman Candle, has some of the greatest storytelling. Writing a song and having it be a story is always difficult to do and not have it be cheesy. [Elliott Smith] seems to have a way of doing that--a narrative structure that's not 'Billy got up and got in his car and drove to Texas.' He doesn't give you the narrative in the most overt sense; he kind of shrouds it a little bit."

As opposed to Death Cab's sometimes sedate pace on disc, Gibbard says the live shows are "an energetic affair. When we get rocking, we get rocking." They've added a couple of covers to their live repertoire, including Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels" and the Eurythmics' "Here Comes the Rain Again," among others. They'll be joined at the Cat's Cradle show by their friends The Prom and by highly touted Brits Trembling Blue Stars, whom Gibbard admires. It probably has nothing to do with the slow-build melancholy that fills the aforementioned band's songs.

Yeah right. And the Northwest's next big band will probably specialize in shiny, happy pop songs. EndBlock

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