I know this is going to sound like a lowball estimate, but there are approximately 102,000 little brothers in the United States. I know this because Codes & Keys moved 102 large in its first week, and the general consensus amongst your friends who “know better” is that only their little brothers listen to Death Cab. Or, if you catch them in a weak moment, perhaps they will admit to having liked We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes in college before they started getting into Timbaland and bands with synthesizers, as if owning a !!! record was a sign of progress.
It's fair play in 2011. Codes And Keys is a by a large margin their worst album, sonically flat and lyrically uninspired. Not surprising, either: Ben Gibbard's life is essentially a video game that he's already beat and all that's left is to busy himself with bonus points.
But the truth is, like fellow millionaire and actress slayer Chris Martin, Gibbard leads a band that is cruelly underrated. This is in large part owed to definitive pop culture references (The 40 Year Old Virgin, The O.C.) that all but equate fanhood to an utter dysfunction of male heterosexuality.
So, I'm here to help out anyone who wants a working knowledge of this stuff before hitting the Greek Theatre to see Death Cab perform on Thursday and Friday. And you should go; this is where you could meet that special someone and have your entire relationship coast on the fact your eyes locked while singing along to “I spent two weeks in Silver Lake” during “Tiny Vessels.” But, first, you'll have to know the basics. This, then, is the bluffer's guide to Death Cab albums.
Give Up (as Postal Service)
Despite containing the vast majority of Ben Gibbard's most astoundingly wussed-out lyrics, his collaboration with Jimmy Tamborello of Dntel (ask your parents) is considered by many discriminating indie heads as the Death Cab album that's okay to like. And as such, it's used as a means of disparaging actual Death Cab albums, as if Iron & Wine's cover of “Such Great Heights” doesn't make you want to coldcock a complete stranger and should DQ this thing right off the bat. Maybe you already dig this one, but bonus points for hating it with a passion for the greater good.
Bluffer's Tip: Make it a point to denigrate the lyric “like a goalie blocking the net in the third quarter of a tied game rivalry” from “Nothing Better.” Neither soccer or hockey has quarters. Plus, seriously…what a fucking dumb lyric.
Something About Airplanes
Known to indie rock historians as a snapshot of the pacific northwest circa 1998. Known to Death Cab n00bs as the one that has a song called 'The Face That Launched 1,000 Shits” on it. Or, thanks to a Barsuk rerelease and the stellar writing of a remarkably handsome individual, the one that currently has the highest Pitchfork score.
Bluffer's Tip: Pick a random song title – that is now the name of the mp3 blog you started in 2003 and have since deleted.
We Have The Facts And We're Voting Yes
You can find its lyrical greatness expounded upon ad infinitum at the always fascinating and stunningly accurate songmeanings.net, but let's just put it this way, if Death Cab had called it quits after this record, they might've been considered the greatest slowcore band of all time. Or at the very least, the only good one.
Bluffer's Tip: If you're smartly using a single coffee purchase at Intelligentsia as a justification for spending two hours at one of the tables, you might consider “Employment Pages” to be eleven years ahead of its time.
The Photo Album
Stuck between the two best records Death Cab has ever made, The Photo Album was certain to be considered “transitional” in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, it allows Gibbard to get all of his Colin Meloy-steez playacting out of the way: behold as Gibbard is a down in the mouth welfare child (“Styrofoam Plates”), someone who will certainly never, ever move to L.A. (“Why You'd Want To Live Here”) and, um, a kaleidoscope (“I Was A Kaleidoscope”).
Bluffer's Tip: You can look incredibly slick by pointing out that “We Laugh Indoors” might be more Kraut-rocky than anything they made when they were overtly trying to be Kraut-rocky.
The absolute motherlode for sensationalizing long-distance relationships, preferably between You, at the local state college and Him/Her, at the private school like an hour or two away. Also acceptable if you're on the east side and your significant other has the nerve to live way the fuck out in Venice or something. Not gonna say I well up a little every time I hear the title track, but I will say I don't not well up a little every time I hear the title track.
Bluffer's Tip: If the whole thing doesn't work out with the aforementioned other you meet at the show, be forewarned that “you are beautiful but you don't mean a thing to me” tends to be like the loudest singalong lyric at any Death Cab performance.
Upon hearing Death Cab's major-label debut in 2005, I joked that none of that Atlantic money went into the narcotic and prostitution concerns of Bellingham, WA. It's sort of double-sided thing; recent revelations of Gibbard's alcoholic bottom more recall weekend night at grad school, plus it's the tipping point where Chris Walla's production was edging ever closer to Mutt Lange territory. The songs that made this go platinum are actually all worth skipping: “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” got them a Grammy nod, but I also saw someone play it at my law school's talent show. Likewise, “Your Heart Is An Empty Room” was used as a trailer for one of those Michel Gondry movies that would've been a cool music video but was kind of a lame feature.
Bluffer's Tip:The remarkable power of the central metaphor of “Brothers On A Hotel Bed” ensured its ability to make it through the height of DipSet mania without a single “no homo.”
Like pretty much everything they do, Death Cab's bid for rock critic cred couldn't help but be totally adorable – Chris Walla namedropped Brainiac and Can, and mostly ended up with songs that sounded like themselves. Except for the Beach Boys homage “You Can Do Better Than Me,” which mostly served as a reminder of that dark time in indie history when the likes of Beulah were hot in the streets. A fun story about this one was that a leak of it was going around, assumed to be legit because it had “I Will Possess Your Heart” on it. Turns out the rest of it was the work of a German band called Velvet Teen, so if you've ever wondered what they'd sound like ran through a stoic, Teutonic filter, your wish is granted.
Bluffer's Tip: Instead of the totally clichéd college dude recreation of “On The Road,” have at “Bixby Canyon Bridge” Fantasy Camp where you go to Big Sur. There, like Gibbard, you can live out your fucked up Kerouac ambitions and decide to get sober because you've woken up to about six empty beers and a couple of strewn pizza boxes (this is actual, self-professed Gibbard lore).