For its third album, Death Cab for Cutie has finally found a suitably inventive drummer (Michael Schorr) whose added power has enabled the band to release its most sonically creative work yet. Not only are the melodies more pointed and pronounced in an early R.E.M. vein than ever before (best exemplified by the simmering “Information Travels Faster”), but the arrangements have been augmented by the newly hyperactive production of guitarist Chris Walla.
The band’s previous work quietly splashed around in the same jangly pool as Pavement and Sunny Day Real Estate, where guitars didn’t propel the songs so much as run alongside them. All the elements work together on The Photo Album, however, as Walla glazes the songs with treated drums, subtle piano work and the occasional painstakingly placed noisy bar chord.
As for singer-lyricist Benjamin Gibbard, he’s still got his gift for observant head-scratchers (“The shop fronts on Holly are dirty words/Asterisks in for the vowels,” he sings), but he also proves that he can pull off intelligible commentary without forsaking his bag of language tricks. “Why You’d Want to Live Here” is a hilarious diatribe against L.A. “I drank from the faucet and kept my receipt for when they weigh me on the way out/Here nothing is free.” And “Styrofoam Plates” is a heart-wrenchingly bitter eulogy for an absent father that I would love to quote from, but it really demands that you hear it in its entirety. Suffice to say that it could be published as a poem and be a billion times as effective as Angela’s Ashes; the fact that it comes accompanied by an unimpeachable melody is, like the rest of The Photo Album, pure gravy.
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