Another sleeper from the past century, 1999’s something about airplanes is the debut of Death Cab for Cutie, from Bellingham, Wash. Full of moody, overcast Northwestern pop in the vein of Built to Spill, this debut album (recorded on analog 8-track) highlights songwriter-vocalist Ben Gibbard’s bleak lyric-scapes, augmented by the occasional cello and odd keyboard swirl.
The songs build dynamically: There are fuzzy, thudding drums, cymbal washes and keyboard parts that bring to mind Portland’s Quasi. The lead track, “Bend to Squares,” builds from a sparse guitar pattern and cello line–along with Gibbard’s slurry vocals–to washy full-band splendor. “President of What?” is a creepy little ditty based over a minor keyboard pattern. “Champaign From a Paper Cup”–a tremolo guitar dirge wherein Gibbard confesses, “I think I’m drunk enough to drive you home”–details the sad-sack scenario of hanging at a bar, getting increasingly drunk waiting for a companion (who seems bent on closing the place down).
Gibbard’s stream-of-consciousness bummer poetry works against the delicate instrumentation, keyboards and vocal harmonies. While the album loses steam a little by the end, it’s still a strong debut. But bear in mind: This ain’t no party record.