Retrospective Review: Death Cab for Cutie – Something About Airplanes (1998)

something-about-airplanes(In preparation for Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth full-length LP that’s set to release in early 2015, we’re going through to explore the discography of the hometown darlings. This is the first in a series of seven Retrospective Reviews we’ll be doing. Today I’m talking about Something About Airplanes in depth.)

Bellingham, Washington-born indie rock legends Death Cab for Cutie are somewhat of a household name among rock fans of all kinds, whether said rock fans love them or think they’re whiny shit for whiny kids. Ever since their inception in 1997, the group has carved out an identity for themselves thanks to their use of instruments idiosyncratic to indie rock, as well as a great vocalist and lyricist in frontman Ben Gibbard, whose distinct voice helps elevate the group’s sound to very emotional and bold proportions.

Following Gibbard’s one-man demo tape You Can Play These Songs with Chords, Death Cab for Cutie’s debut album Something About Airplanes was released in 1998 under Barsuk Records, whom has also released albums from the likes of Phantogram, the Dismemberment Plan and Cymbals Eat Guitars. Compared to other Pacific Northwest indie rock albums that were released around the same time like The Lonesome Crowded West and Perfect from Now On, Death Cab’s debut LP had a flavour not seen from any other PNW indie rock band at the time, taking noticeable elements of shoegazing as well as emo music, which was exploding in popularity around this time frame. The result of these stylistic elements is a nervous and fleeting debut record that doesn’t hold up nearly as well as those other indie rock albums when listened to today.

Be it in a derogatory or complimentary way, “emo” is a label slapped on Death Cab for Cutie constantly, and listening to several tracks on Something About Airplanes, it isn’t difficult to see why. The way Ben Gibbard sings on tracks like “The Face That Launched 1000 Shits” and “Pictures of an Exhibition” are very sullen and emotive, and the instrumentation on others like “Your Bruise” and “Champagne from a Paper Cup” also tap into this feeling of depression and misery. While lyrically Ben Gibbard may not be as blunt as other late-90s emo acts like New Found Glory and Sunny Day Real Estate, he delivers his vague and cryptic lines with enough gusto and conviction to make them seem as important and powerful as they need to be. His voice and overall personality are without a doubt the most compelling aspect of this whole LP.

Something About Airplanes shows Death Cab for Cutie all but relying on production effects to make their instrumentation compelling. It seems like every track on the LP has some sort of dominating production gimmick to separate them from each other, whether it’s the subtle reversed instrumentation on “President of What?” or the fuzzy lo-fi effects on the album’s only single “Your Bruise”. While these production choices can sometimes enhance the songs’ mood and overall enjoyment factor, other times they can feel petty and detrimental, such as the muddled vocal tampering on the otherwise solid “Sleep Spent” and the very underwhelming mixing on the track “Fake Frowns”, where the seemingly energetic drums are too quiet and drowned out by the vocals and guitar to really exhilarate.

One thing I will say about Death Cab for Cutie on their debut record, they do make for a solid indie shoegazing band. My favourite moments on this LP were when the band tried their hand at bridging the gap between the late-90s Pacific Northwest indie rock sound and the very moody and understatedly-ostentatious sound of bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine. The shoegazing-esque tracks like “Amputations”, “Sleep Spent” and the album’s seven-minute closer “Line of Best Fit” hold up the best nowadays, and these songs sound like they paved the way for popular contemporary indie rock acts like The National and The War on Drugs, whom also take on this style of very syrupy, indulgent indie shoegazing music.

Outside of those few tracks and a few notable lines from Gibbard here and there (particularly the line “‘Cos nothing hurts like nothing at all when imagination takes full control…” off of “President of What?”), Something About Airplanes has little to offer in comparison to Death Cab for Cutie’s later releases. If you’re a hardcore fan of this band or you’re just looking to relive that prolific era of indie rock, then maybe Something About Airplanes is worth revisiting. Otherwise, I’d recommend sticking to the band’s 2000s releases instead.

After Something About Airplanes, Death Cab for Cutie took themselves in a more ambitious, emotional and personable direction that we all know the band for. Join me next time when I take a look at their 2000 sophomore LP, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes.

Your friend,
Jess Casebeer

About Jess Casebeer

The only music critic in the Pacific Northwest, Jess Casebeer is the youngest member of the NorthWest Music Scene crew at age 16. Open to most genres out there, he greatly values reviews that are informative, critical and entertaining. He's kind of like an innerspring mattress: firm, yet comfortable in its own right. Follow him on Twitter @JessCasebeer.