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Death Cab For Cutie

It might not be immediately apparent, but the members of Death Cab for Cutie have fine senses of humor. How else can you explain the very name of the band, which they copped from a song by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band -- a group more familiar to followers of Dr. Demento than those of Guided by Voices. Though the group has only been around since 1997, it has already garnered heaps of praise and been heralded as everything from the next Built To Spill to the next Modest Mouse.

But lumping Death Cab in with its Northwest brethren does the band a bit of a disservice. Certainly, singer/guitarist Ben Gibbard's earnest, wistful vocals recall Built to Spill's Doug Martsch. And sure, the group originally formed in the sleepy college town of Bellingham, Washington (they have since relocated to Seattle). But their songs reveal the influence of the Beatles and pre-Controversy era Kinks as much as the guitar gymnastics of bands from the Pacific Northwest. When you get down to brass tacks, Death Cab is a very simple band. They don't rely on flashy effects or cryptic lyrics to express themselves. Instead, they realize that pop is a wonderfully flexible medium to vent any sort of energy.

Many of Death Cab's songs are rather confessional, soul-bearing tales of dealing with post-relationship fallout. Gibbard makes them work by coming off as a particularly sincere guy who has just had a string of bad luck at a tender age. Luckily, though, he has learned from his mistakes, and is able to channel his energy into beautiful indie pop fables. Gibbard's lyrics document the pain of grappling with the slings and arrows of outrageous cupids; he dresses up heartbreak in well-crafted verses and coats his angst with intricate yet hummable layers of guitar wash.

"Bend to Squares," from Death Cab's first album -- 1999's Something About Airplanes, a co-release from Barsuk and Elsinor Records -- starts out mired in molasses and then breaks free into a soaring epic. "President of What?" has an almost carnivalesque herky-jerky off-kilter rhythm thanks in large part to the rollicking organ. "Sleep Spent's" devastating momentum and poignancy are underscored by the simple, monumental instrumentation of guitar, bass, and drums. It's also one of the band's personal favorites.

Guitarist Chris Walla produced, recorded, and mixed Death Cab's second album, 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (Barsuk). The album's barely restrained frantic urgency highlights Death Cab's masterful balance of tension and release. The poignant and understated "The Employment Pages" sketches the outline of a crumbling relationship. "For What Reason" shrouds bitterness in lilting melody. "Lowell, MA" is a bona fide dance favorite that skips along with a super catchy pop hook and an utterly singable chorus.

Bad luck befell the band members during the summer of 2000 in the form of a series of bizarre accidents that left them broken and bruised, but they endured and even managed to release an EP that fall, Forbidden Love, featuring five exquisitely broken and bruised paeans to heartbreak (two of them gentle alternate takes of songs from We Have the Facts). The opener to that release, "Photobooth," provides a beautifully concise example of the clean, creative, poignant pop style for which Death Cab has become revered.

From brooding to buoyant, Death Cab for Cutie's songs sound classic from the very first listen.