Considering how hip-hop heavy these proceedings get, regular readers may find it surprising that I would even be at a Death Cab for Cutie show last Friday, let alone to learn they’re one of my favourite bands. I can tell you why, but it’ll take a few paragraphs, and it occurred to me recently that maybe, friends, you don’t want to hear my whole life story before I tell you whether whatever event I attended was good or not. So for those people:
The Death Cab show last Friday was fantastic.
If you want to hang, I’ll be behind the cut.
I grew up in a commuter town, the sort of place that houses and supplies the people worked in the city half an hour north, mostly autoworkers. The local economy produced next to nothing on its own and shriveled to service jobs. So if you didn’t drive [I didn’t], it was nigh impossible to find a job, and actually impossible to find one of quality. This is how I found myself working midnights at the only all-night gas station in town, next door to the only bar worth showing up to under the age of 40 [faint praise].
My shifts went from midnight to 8:00 a.m., and followed the same pattern: a trickle of customers until 2:00, a trickle of bar hoppers coming home from the city until 3:30, then nothing until around 6:00, when the rush of day shifters started, heralded by a pair of fraternal garbage pickers in a station wagon I dubbed ‘Dirty Dennis & Earl the Retard.’
I was a pretty angry young man.
It was a very solitary job. I smoked a lot, I ate a lot of shitty food, I learned that the idea of living in that town for the rest of my life filled my chest with a tightening that made me hyperventilate, and I listened to a lot of local radio.
Without question, my favourite radio program was a show on Detroit’s 96.3 FM called Big Sonic Heaven. If I remember it, the playlist was described as ‘Ethereal Dreampop’ and featured a mix of shoegaze, trip-hop and and electronic. Think the Cocteau Twins by way of Portishead and Ryuichi Sakamoto. It ran for four hours on Sunday nights from 10:00 to 2:00 a.m. and was basically the only thing that kept me sane as I started my nocturnal workweek on Sundays with a ten-hour shift, because they needed me to and I’m Irish and that’s just the kind of bullshit we’ll endure whilst muttering curses under our breaths.
So that show was essential to me. I would turn the radio up far louder than it probably should have been in a place of business and sat on the counter reading the New Yorker and behaving like a very serious young man in an attempt to freak out the squares in town. I remember one night a woman came in around 12:45 in the morning to grab a carton of cream and I had Wandering Star blasting through the entire store. She turned from the back corner of the store and yelled, ‘You like this?!’ Mission accomplished.
The host of the show, a guy named Darren Revell, would clearly get into these patterns where if he liked something, he played the hell out of it, whether that was a something old he rediscovered or a new act that impressed him. One of the songs he started playing with pretty regular frequency was ‘The Dream of Evan & Chan’ by DNTEL.
I loved the music, soft spot for ambient that I am, but what killed me was that voice! And not just the voice, but the lyrics and melody. They were the most beautifully prosaic lyrics, and whoever the guy was, his gift for melody was better than anyone I’d heard.
You can fill in the blanks. That DNTEL song begat The Postal Service, which set the world on fire and made bleeding hearts like me, desperate for more of Ben Gibbard’s melodic sensibilities, to hunt down his band Death Cab for Cutie, who had just released their fourth album Transatlanticism.
That album is still, easily top five for me, and is possibly the closest I’ve come to a perfect rock album top to bottom [Death of an Interior Decorator ruins it for everyone, but not too much]. I listened to that thing front to back countless times. I wrote my first [and only winning] attempt at National Novel Writing Month with it as my soundtrack. And I drew solace from it as I negotiated the twists and turns of loving a woman who didn’t love me back. It became emblematic of very distinct time in my life, and always jerks me back there in that way that only music you really care about can.
I’ve fallen off the train in subsequent albums, mostly because Gibbard’s lyrical sensibility seemed to shift toward the minimalist, and because I really didn’t like ‘I Will Possess Your Heart.‘ By the time they cashed in on the Twilight Soundtrack Express [not that I blame them], I just felt like I lost touch with them. We’d grown apart as band and fan.
When tickets to Friday’s show fell into my lap that afternoon, I suspected I could end up falling in love with them again, despite my now decidedly bass-heavy musical preferences.
I was right.
You can go to other sites if you want the play-by-play, I can only tell you what it meant to me. Yes, there were dry spots, yes I got bored during ‘I Will Possess Your Heart,’ yes I wanted to smack the hipster chick who ran in front of my seat to pogo dance arrhythmically during ‘The Sound of Settling’. But I was also surprised by how much I enjoyed ‘Crooked Teeth’ in a live setting considering how much I dislike it on record. I was impressed by their tightness as a band, the lack of banter in favour of giving the crowd more songs. And I was thrilled that the opening of the set heavily weighted towards older material.
But primarily, I was happy to see they knew that ‘Transatlanticism’ was the mandatory show closer, building for seven minutes to its cathartic Come on‘s, taking me from 2003 and its prism of emo-boy misery into the [relatively] happier days of 2011.
There may have been tears.
I’ll never tell.