Sunday, August 28, 2005

The best part is that it's well-deserved:

Nothing Is Certain but Death and Taxis - New York Times

Nothing Is Certain but Death and Taxis

Published: August 28, 2005

BEN GIBBARD, the lead singer and main songwriter for Death Cab for Cutie, has had a wildly eventful few years. His band's sweet, melancholy songs have helped a generation of listeners rediscover the joys of heartfelt balladry. And along the way, Mr. Gibbard has gone from semi-obscure singer to unlikely heartthrob. Who could have predicted that someone like him would wind up dominating the gossip columns? And who could have foreseen the sold-out stadium concerts, the punch-up with a paparazzo, the fruitful marriage to Gwyneth Paltrow?

O.K., strike that last bit: I think I'm getting Mr. Gibbard mixed up with that guy from Coldplay. But it's a surprisingly easy mistake to make. Both of them know their way around grand, sighing love songs. And while Mr. Gibbard isn't quite a mainstream rock star yet, he's surprisingly close. The last Death Cab for Cutie album, "Transatlanticism" (Barsuk), has sold more than 300,000 copies since its release in 2003. And with an electronic side project called the Postal Service, Mr. Gibbard released another 2003 album, "Give Up" (Sub Pop); it was a surprise indie smash, selling more than 600,000 copies.

On Tuesday, Death Cab for Cutie is to release "Plans" (Atlantic), its first major-label album, which is all but assured to be its best-selling one so far. In an earlier era, indie-rock fans might have worried about the new record deal and the newfound popularity, but Death Cab's evolution into a pop-chart-ready band has been steady and relatively uncontroversial. Whereas older indie-rock groups sometimes struggled furiously against the current of listener demand, this one has found a graceful way to swim with it.

"Plans" also represents a challenge for the mainstream music industry. Modest Mouse proved that indie-rock bands (you don't necessarily outgrow the genre when you outgrow your record label) could earn a platinum plaque, and Bright Eyes proved that an indie-rock act could make its debut in the Top 10. Now the executives at Atlantic Records have a chance to raise the bar again, although no one knows how high. Could Death Cab be the first of these bands to break into the Top 5? The first to go double-platinum? The first to score a remix from Kanye West? (A Gibbard can dream, can't he?)

Ever since Death Cab's 1999 debut album, "Something About Airplanes," this Bellingham, Wash., band has been finding ways to record music that is pretty but not fussy. The members first perfected their approach on "We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes" (Barsuk), an astonishing CD full of hard songs that sounded soft. Mr. Gibbard sang,
When your apologies fail to ring true
So slick with that sarcastic slew
Of phrases like, 'I thought you knew'
While keeping me in hot pursuit

but the words came out not as angry accusations but as one long, gentle sigh.

After "The Photo Album" (Barsuk), from 2001, the band outdid itself with "Transatlanticism," which showed off Mr. Gibbard's crystalline voice and also the crystalline production of the guitarist, Chris Walla. He stripped away almost all the noise and fuzz, letting listeners concentrate on intoxicating little details, like the owlish hoots hidden in the background of a song called "Lightness."

With "Translatlanticism," Mr. Gibbard also found a simpler and more suspenseful way to write songs. Sometimes he began with a scientific observation ("And when I see you, I really see you upside down/ But my brain knows better, it picks you up and turns you around") and worked his way toward an unadorned confession ("I know it's too late/ And I should have given you a reason to stay"). Songs from the album found their way to soundtracks, including that the of TV show "The OC." The sugary songs of the Postal Service became sleeper hits, too, and Mr. Gibbard found himself the figurehead of an unexpected indie-rock boom.

Whatever the cause, it wasn't Mr. Gibbard's rock-star swagger. If anything, his success seems like a byproduct of his humility. A prouder band might find defiant ways to alienate newcomers, and to keep longtime fans at arm's length. But Death Cab excels at giving listeners what they want: wistful, neatly written indie-rock ballads. Instead of insisting that we humor them (like noisier, pricklier indie bands of a decade ago), Death Cab has agreed to humor us, instead; like the Shins and Rilo Kiley, Death Cab has figured out that there's nothing wrong with being eager to please.

Now comes "Plans," which is fuller than "Transatlanticism" but otherwise quite similar. There are delicious (and, still, melancholy) songs that unfold like the last batch. "What Sarah Said" begins with some rolling keyboard chords (come to think of it, they don't sound wholly unlike something Ms. Paltrow's husband might play), and some opening remarks: "And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time." (It's the closest Mr. Gibbard comes to singing the title.) By song's end, the lyrics have grown shiveringly direct: "I'm thinking of what Sarah said/ That love is watching someone die/ So who's gonna watch you die?" These are cruel words, but Mr. Gibbard sings them as if he really wants to know.

This album feels a bit more premeditated, a bit more familiar, than "Transatlanticism." (In fact, the new album ends with a throwback: "Stable Song" is a rearrangement of "Stability," which was released on an EP in 2002..) But it's a triumph all the same, with semisweet refrains that glide into your brain and refuse to leave; millions of Coldplay fans should give this CD a chance. In "I Will Follow You Into the Dark," which seems destined to become one of the album's most beloved songs, there is only an acoustic guitar to accompany Mr. Gibbard's memorable promise of endless love: "If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks/ Then I'll follow you into the dark." On this album, couples don't just part, they dearly depart.

Mr. Gibbard's lyrics have changed subtly over the years. The early albums were full of odes sung by lovers left behind. In one old song, "Company Calls Epilogue," Mr. Gibbard evoked an ex's wedding: "You were the one/ But I can't spit it out when the date's been set." Now he's as likely to be the leaver as the left. "Someday You Will Be Loved" offers cold comfort to an ex: "The memories of me will seem more like bad dreams/ Just a series of blurs like I never occurred."

On the album's first single, "Soul Meets Body," Mr. Gibbard delivers a soothing pick-up line. "You're the only song I want to hear," he sings, "A melody softly soaring through my atmosphere."

That phrase sums up what Death Cab for Cutie promises its listeners. Most bands, of course, promise far more. But it's worth remembering, too, that almost all of them wind up delivering far less.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

No, not because we're friends:

A smart, funny essay from one of my favorite writers:

June 5, 2002 | CANOGA PARK, Calif. -- Canoga Park is a rarely visited graveyard where celebrity pool cleaners go to die. It's less a suburban oasis than an apocalyptic dustbowl, an unfathomably ugly San Fernando Valley sprawl of strip malls, factories and cul-de-sacs that can only boast affordable housing and a lower crime rate than Los Angeles. During the summer, the valley is always at least 10 degrees hotter, and exponentially more humid, than anywhere else in Southern California. From the moment you cross the border, it feels like you've ventured inside the mouth of a dog.

More: Sex | Fast forward

Friday, August 19, 2005

From the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Trend-bucking Paste now trendy magazine":

Trend-bucking Paste now trendy magazine | AccessAtlanta

Trend-bucking Paste now trendy magazine

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/14/2005

Back in college, the founders of Paste magazine surely couldn't have imagined 9-to-5 ever being this much fun.

Sipping free liquor before noon, brought in by a 3 Vodka representative who wants to discuss advertising and potential sponsorships.

What differentiates Paste from the No. 1 magazine on the Tribune's list, music magazine Blender, as well as mainstays such as Rolling Stone and Spin, is that you can pretty much bet that no matter how much pop superstar Britney Spears agrees to bare, she will never be on its cover.

Opening boxes of complimentary CDs every day.

Gorging on chips, queso and a seemingly endless supply of fish tacos during two-hour lunches.

But don't be misled — these are working lunches.

Today, in a six-room Decatur office that, with its walls lined with shelves of CDs and music posters, feels a little like a dorm room, eight music and movie lovers are eating and holding energetic talks about the best ways to share their favorite new finds with the world.

Editor Josh Jackson points out that there hasn't been a woman on the cover in a while.

Some names are tossed out: India Arie. Lizz Wright. Fiona Apple.

"Yeaah," says assistant editor Steve LaBate. "With [Apple's] album that's not coming out floating around, that would be unexpected."

"And with her being out of the spotlight," Jackson adds, "and most of all, good ."

These are men who take their roles as tastemakers seriously.

Think of Paste magazine as a dream come true for that high school classmate who used to make mixtapes for his friends. In fact, partners Jackson, Nick Purdy and Joe Kirk were those guys, spreading mixtapes around their high schools in Dunwoody, Norcross and Naples, Fla. Their fourth partner, Tim Porter, says he was more of a tape and CD loaner at his high school in Jackson.

Seven years ago, Purdy, Jackson and a friend created, an online retailer of indie music. In July 2002, Jackson, Purdy and Porter, a classmate of Jackson's at UGA, launched Paste magazine as a quarterly with 600 subscribers, most of them Web site customers. (Kirk, who had been mastering the magazine's free CD samplers, was brought in as a partner shortly afterward.) By October 2003, Paste had grown so much that it became a bimonthly.

And with the release of its August/September issue, Paste got even bigger, more than doubling its print run to 225,000 thanks to a recent buyout of the rock music magazine Tracks.

But its founders' influence extends beyond its subscription base. Every Tuesday at 1:54 p.m., either Jackson or Purdy — the two main faces of the magazine and friends since they met at a Presbyterian church youth group 18 years ago — share their interests with the hundreds of thousands tuned in to "CNN Headline News."

And 37 independent record stores in 24 states feature Paste Recommends listening stations programmed by the magazine's 19-member staff.

Those listening stations present certain challenges, though, which have the staff at the lunch meeting concerned.

"So what are we going to do when our reviewer gives one-and-a-half stars to something on the Paste Recommends station, or the sampler?" LaBate asks.

(The CDs for the stations and the songs for the samplers are chosen before staff and freelance critics review albums.)

"Everything is not always going to line up," Purdy answers. "What we have to do with the sampler is fill it with the 22 songs we love. And if there are one or two things in editorial that conflict with that, hey, we can still stand by the fact that the 22 songs on the sampler we love!"

Their passion is getting them noticed.

In June, the Chicago Tribune named Paste one of the 50 best magazines, placing it at No. 21 — six places ahead of the British music magazine Mojo, which Paste aspires to emulate.

What differentiates Paste from the No. 1 magazine on the Tribune's list, music magazine Blender, as well as mainstays such as Rolling Stone and Spin, is that you can pretty much bet that no matter how much pop superstar Britney Spears agrees to bare, she will never be on its cover.

"We live and die by our tagline — 'Signs of Life in Music, Film and Culture,' " explains Purdy, far and away the most matter-of-fact of the generally easygoing foursome.

The staff added "film" to the tagline when its December/January 2004 issue hit stands with director Wes Anderson ("Rushmore," "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") on the cover.

"Film has always been a component of the magazine," Purdy says. "We've increased our emphasis on it in the last year. But in the future the magazine, ultimately, will be seen as an entertainment magazine."

It is Paste's mission, says Kirk, to help people find art that has value and to help encourage its development.

"Paste finds the edgy, really provocative, forward-thinking, progressive musicians," says Lindsey Pearl of Press Here Publicity, whose clients (danceable rock band Franz Ferdinand, beloved indie wordsmith Bright Eyes) have been given major feature treatment in Paste. "I think as music diversifies more and more, it's important to have publications that really do honor the music itself and are not paying attention to politics, fashion and culture."

Dave Siff, a bassist in a couple of local bands and the "Headline News" executive producer who brought the Paste guys to CNN, says the look and content of the magazine caught his eye.

"I was told by somebody, like, 'Hey, check out this local music magazine.' And I'm thinking to myself, Stomp and Stammer. Not that there's anything wrong with Stomp and Stammer. But I just thought, like [Stomp], it was gonna be paper, thin, that kind of thing. And the first time I got my hands on Paste I was literally blown away. Mouth agape."

Porter came up with the name Paste when some of the partners were sitting around one day trying to come up with a good metaphor for connection.

"We really feel music is not inert," Purdy says. "It has emotional, spiritual, inspiring-type power over people. It's not something that's just food that goes in your body and out. It affects you. So that's why we're toying around with the idea of a connection. Paste is a metaphor for connection."

With that kind of purpose and focus from its start, it's no wonder they're taking some abuse from their readers for giving the ever-writhing pop star Shakira a positive, full-page review. Or — gasp! — actually liking mainstream favorite Coldplay's latest CD, "X & Y."

After all, the Tribune deemed Paste "hip without sacrificing credibility on the altar of corporately deemed 'cool.' "

Pardon Kirk as he snickers a bit.

"We're often seen as having a bias toward artists nobody ever heard of before, but that's mostly because other people aren't paying attention to artists nobody's heard of," he says with a laugh. "And yeah, we probably are more likely to help people discover the next little thing, but we kind of really don't care. If it's good, it's good. You can't please everybody."

If there has been one consistent knock against Paste, it's that it hasn't seemed to have found many "signs of life" in the work blacks, Latinos and other people of color are creating.

Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, of the hip-hop band the Roots, is the only black person to have a Paste cover. "And I can see where that could be perceived as a plus and a minus," Thompson says.

Purdy doesn't dodge the issue.

"Absolutely we could and should be stronger there," he says. "And slowly and surely, we are putting our money where our mouth is. We're working on a big feature on [black Atlanta singer-songwriter] India Arie. The whole neo-soul thing seems to be a place where folks in our audience — who, let's just say, don't listen to a lot of music made by black people — can start."

The Paste guys know tastes can be changed.

After all, Purdy admits that the mixtapes they made back in high school included songs like DeBarge's "Rhythm of the Night."

Little chance of such dopey pop seeing daylight on a future Paste sampler.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Next week? That I'm actually a guy:

Last week, a message boarder said that I was Jewish. This week, I'm listed as a poet. (See below.) Anyhow, if you're in the Bay Area on Thursday, drop by Pegasus Books in Berkeley for Cranky's first out-of-state reading: