One of the highlights of the Postal Service album Give Up is
the duet 'Nothing Better'. The typical heart-on-sleeve, sad-sack singer
old with the woman of his dreams. Nothing special there„some bands base their
entire career on that conceit. This dream girl, however, chimes in that the guy
really needs to get over her and move on with his life. And with that, she neatly
undercuts nearly twenty years of the entire indie-pop genre of music. Describing
the mode of music is difficult because it is mostly 'not' things: not particularly
punk, pop, rock or whatever, though elements of all those are creep in; not (in
the USA at least) chart-topping (that is reserved for soul-less robots, no offense
to any robots with souls); and, often, not very good. The biggest influences
are usually just other indie-pop bands so many bands remain in a stifling circular
flight holding pattern. It's a shame since some very talented musicians do not
bother to push themselves very hard and seem content to stay in an indie stranglehold
for whatever reason. Laziness as a lifestyle choice isn't a valid excuse any
Fortunately, some bands fly in wider circles. The Postal Service is a collaboration
between Death Cab For Cutie's singer Ben Gibbard with Jimmy Tamborella of Dntel.
Ben provides the voice and lyrics with Jimmy providing a background of synthesizer
blips, bloops, and drum loops. If the year were 1992, the songs probably would
have featured the traditional band line-up of guitar, guitar, bass, and drums
(Ben saves that for his other band). An entire album of synthesizer and beat-based
tunes written this way goes to show how far along acceptance of non-acoustic
music has gone in the past decade. No, beats are no longer the realm of drug-addled
ravers or dancing queens. Please read this note if you find the previous statement
(A) wrong, or (B) offensive. (A) Please bear in mind that the indie-pop genre
is slow to adapt to the ways of mainstream music trends, for better or for worse.
(B) As a homosexual, I've heard enough High-NRG to be wary of anything going
thump-thump. 'Natural Anthem' features two violin samples competing for attention
amid a din before building to an eventual release. Ben's lyrics can veer toward
preciousness, but sometimes a little wide-eye wonder is appreciated.
Death Cab For Cutie's recent album Transatlanticism is apparently
very popular with the kids. Why shouldn't it be? Ben mines most of the same lyrical
terrain of love lost and heartbreak, but the typical band line-up has a hard
time to compete with the galaxy of electronics sounds of the Postal Service.
Ben's voice has a hard time conveying the despair that the distorted guitars
conjure. He sings 'you are beautiful but you don't mean a thing to me' on the
song 'Tiny Vessels'. Using a band's own line to deride them seems kind of unfair--okay,
then I'm unfair. Transatlanticism is a solid guitar-rock-indie album,
but I have reservations. Like the Pernice Brothers or Ivy, the notes are right,
is right, but the heart of it is elsewhere, lost in studied reverence of other
bands. Death Cab For Cutie is less polite on 'We Looked Like Giants' and better
for it when the guitars hit with lyrics that recall fumbling in the backseat
of a car.
About two years ago in an episode of the television series Gilmore Girls,
Rory Gilmore was happily listening to music with headphones in her high school
cafeteria while reading some thick novel. A burst of a song came through on
her headphones before she was called to her principal's office for not socializing.
I spent the rest of the evening skipping through each track of Kink
Kronikles to locate the song only to find out later it was the Shins' 'Know
Your Onion!'. The band's first album, Oh, Inverted World, had the
type of popularity that began as a happy accident with the stars aligned correctly
and the seers
reading the bones correctly. The band has studied their influences well„the video
for the song 'New Slang' showed the band members in living tableaus of their
favorite record covers from Slint's Spiderland to Moon Pix by
Cat Power. But the songwriting came through for that song weaving a tale of
that lost hazy memory
of being young (maybe„that's open to debate). The Shins appeared in just about
every glossy magazine in anticipation of the follow-up album Chutes Too Narrow.
And for the most part, the album expands both on songwriting and singing with
neither massive surprises or disappointments. The biggest strength is the often
surreal lyrics that may be either poetry or gibberish. When James sings about 'poorly
cast as a malcontent' on 'Mine's Not A High Horse', he cuts to the heart of the
matter even better than the ex-girlfriend on the Postal Service's 'Nothing Better'
Sad-sack lovers aren't the ones to overthrow the government in a bloody coup„they
are the ones to write indie-pop songs as their girlfriends leave them for world
© 2004 Matthew Hintz