Culturespill » Ben Gibbard

Low Water Rising

13th May

John on the Epiphone, Low Water

If skipping town in a cross-country skid from Brooklyn to San Fransisco with a mobile photo booth in tow doesn’t sound like fun to you, then you need to get out more. Specifically, you need to get out more with Low Water, the latest band to earn Culturespill’s distinction of “Best Band You’ve Never Heard Of.” Fresh off of filming the video for their new single, “Sister, Leave Me,” for which they dragged a photo booth across the country and implored the nearest bystander to step inside and sing on camera, they’re taking it to the streets with an upcoming third release called Twisting the Neck of the Swan; and judging from how effortlessly their music stands up to the hype, they just might bank with this one.

Continuing their breezy brand of simple and stripped down pop rock that marries Spoon and The Long Winters in a musical brew they can call their own, “Sister, Leave Me” plays like a reliable follow-through on the trio’s established glories, a back-to-basics rock ‘n roll that awakens you to just how desperate you’ve been for a band that’s not afraid to sound this real. Think Hot Hot Heat without the adolescent frenzy. Cowboy Junkies with balls. A long-overdue musical retort to Wilco’s 1995 debut, AM. In other words, think a really fucking good band you need to hear NOW.

We’re admittedly stretching the rules for these guys, though, because all sorts of people are hearing about them these days. The Pittsburgh Gazette: “Gritty post-Replacements rock with style and substance.” Amplifier Magazine: “Bridging modern Americana with rock ‘n roll out of the garage.” The Davis Enterprise: “Elevated above your average Emo rock . . . tasteful guitar playing, subtle humor, and masterful and clever wordplay.” Origivation Magazine: “Beautiful. Just beautiful.” Hell, they even got their own spot on NPR’s All Songs Considered recently. You don’t get much bigger than that. Er, OK, maybe you do–but they’ll get there too. And in a big damned hurry.

Low Water: “Strange New Element”

For a band that vows to “write . . . solid unpretentious songs that reflect where we’re from,” it’s no wonder some people find nothing more to say other than “beautiful, just beautiful” in futile attempts at putting into words the miracle this band puts to tape, reduced to the inarticulate wonder of a drooling infant (I’m raising my hand.) The flawless pop-rock gem “House in the City,” a tune you can check out on the band’s myspace page, opens with a meaty and irresistible crunch of guitar. By the time Johnny Leitera’s laid-back vocals transport the song to some Sunday afternoon on a backwoods porch with a fatty and a can of moonshine, the song locates an unlikely bridge between punk and alt-country under a hard rain of influence that never obscures the band’s vision. Collapsing into a lo-fidelity jam worthy of the Black Keys–though not quite that low-fi–a syrupy burst of synth sweetens the tune on its way to a sparkling and vaguely grungy close.

Yet no single flourish of the band’s deceptively nuanced sound clutches you by the throat to throng you in their desperate genius; they’re that rare young band that knows how to let the music speak for itself, delighting in an unassuming restraint they ride through every song with the unwavering confidence that drives a great Neil Young album (most of their material offers a composite of Comes A Time and Zuma.) As far as Johnny’s concerned, though, Low Water are “a rock band of the same mold as The Kinks.” While we’re always leery of bands with the balls to boast a resemblance to The Kinks, whom we at Culturespill believe is the greatest band to ever grace a rock ‘n roll stage, the comparison isn’t entirely hyperbolic.

They may not be producing work of such lyrical mastery as “Waterloo Sunset” or “Shangri-La,” but they do write songs of enough quality for one to suspect that these guys have read almost as much as they’ve played. In a musical climate dominated by teeny-bopping Emo-bots who swoon over a Ben Gibbard lyric only out of ignorance of the covering cherubs of songwriting that paved his path forty years ago, that’s a welcome change of pace. And Johnny’s homage to those aging angels of rock is clearly more substantive than boastful, as he acknowledges an ambition not just to return to the sound of The Kinks, but also to embody the literate ethos they brought to rock ‘n roll. “I wanted to convey the blue-collar, working class aspect of the band,” he says of their name, “Low Water is a slang term from the ’40s for not having any money. It’s amazing how that’s proven to be appropriate,” he elaborates. Amazing indeed–both in song and in spirit–how closely this band comes to encompassing the hard-nosed paradox of indifference and empathy that rock ‘n roll was founded on.

Visions of Johanna: On the Hunt for the Next Great Songwriter

7th May

Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen in 1969

“Mona Lisa musta had the highway blues
You can see it in the way she smiles.”
–Bob Dylan, “Visions of Johanna

Not too long ago, I lived the life of an alienated lover of books and music, awakening from the baffled and brutal slumber of a high school experience largely dominated by the anxious desperation of a yearned-for belonging, a need that eludes so many who navigate those tortured and cliquish halls on the way to a college experience where the freaks find their kind and settle into an initial notion of who they are. I spent hours on end each evening trading banter with a fellow Leonard Cohen lover about the nuanced passages of obscure bootlegs of his, musical diamonds mined from the cluttered shelves of overlooked record shops on Macdougal or Thomspon in the village, a storied neighborhood in the bowels of New York City where Dylan and Van Ronk once ruled as kings of a counterculture whose reverberations we weather to this day.

No, not too long ago at all. I recall pulling off to the side of a rural road in Long Island as Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy” played on the stereo, my eyes literally bloating with held-back tears as I reeled in the throes of a gut-wrenching break-up while Cohen sang softly about “The sisters of mercy who are not departed or gone,” how “they waited for me when I thought that I just can’t go on,” who “brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.” With what effortless precision had Cohen identified exactly the note and notion I needed to hear at that moment–a possibility of hope and survival found only in song. I recall hanging on the line in silence with that above-mentioned friend as we listened in reverent stillness to Cohen’s “Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys” from his devastating masterpiece of melancholy, 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. How only our hushed but vaguely audible breaths stood between ourselves and the song, a wild whirlwind of singers twirling the tune around their haunted voices, a wiry wail as undisciplined as it is sincere.

I recall many cold nights driving through downtown Manhattan, a winter rain thrumming the windshield as I struggled again to squeeze into an only parking space in that sleepless town, fleeing my car to wade through the weather with the collar of a worn leather coat popped to keep my wet neck warm on the way to another cappuccino at Cafe Dante, the historic cafe on MacDougal just across the street from a loft Dylan lived in thirty years before. I recall how many nights that weather brought to mind the song Dylan tattooed on the American memory in a voice edged with cigarettes and dust, lines about how “the harmonica plays the skeleton keys and the rain,” or the way “Louise holds a handful of rain tempting you to defy it.”

Dylan in ‘66
Dylan in London, 1966

These are the lines against which any more recent songwriter’s work must be held. They are memories that only the best-made songs call us to connect our lives to, and any aspiring masters of song who shy away from that great challenge are doomed to shrink in the shadow of a history they might otherwise have enriched. When bands like Death Cab For Cutie storm the scene with hailed writers like Ben Gibbard to offer a latest gem by the name of “I Will Possess Your Heart”–the title alone one of far less subtlety and tact than anything either of the aforementioned songwriters would ever even ponder–it is this fertile heritage he confronts. Lines like “How I wish you could see the potential of you and me” or “I know you will find love” read like phantom impostors by comparison, knee-jerk lines scribbled on a napkin in crayon and shoved in the pocket of a shirt that’s later tossed to the hamper and forgotten. It is a difficult but hardly arguable fact that one commits an act of blasphemy in pairing figures like Gibbard, however sincere or loved they may be, with the predecessors that paved the way to their fame all those years ago. Such undue claims to glory suggest that younger fans mistake a catchy tune for lyrical intensity, trading substance for surface in a fit of confused adoration.

This is not to say that those capable of hanging with such esteemed company do not exist in the industry’s current and bountiful crop of songwriters. Songwriters of that magnitude are and must necessarily be few and far between, but they are apparent to those looking hard enough. Joe Henry, for example, who is married to, of all people, the sister of the Material Girl herself, continues to produce one brilliant exhibition of lyrical mastery after another, particularly the trilogy of Trampoline, Fuse and Scar, albums teeming with an abundance of gripping language dressed in Henry’s unique and ethereal jungle of sound. Henry, producer of recent projects by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello and, most notably, a grammy-winning foray into soul that produced Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me and the resurrection of Bettye Lavette, is a sought-after collaborator for a reason: he has quietly developed one of the most respectable oeuvres music has seen since Tom Waits’s Swordfish/Raindogs/Frank’s Wild Years package in the mid ’80s.

Joe Henry
Joe Henry

“Like she was the fever I wear like a crown,” Henry sings of some sought-after love in “Like She Was A Hammer,” “Like she was the raging flower in the brick yard . . . like she was Roosevelt’s funeral in the street.” Henry plows language to dig beneath the surface of the banter that passes for songwriting in a Death Cab tune, unearthing the raw jewelry of words to convey a far more persuasive sense of the helplessness and need that Gibbard reaches for in his newest single. He so quickly finds and exposes the pumping heart of the song that he hardly leaves you a second to breathe before you’re thrown into an empty room with nothing but your own wounded memories to get you through the hour. “I wonder how you turned out the stars,” Henry sings on the spare and fragile “Lock and Key,” “I hear your laugh / like falling railway cars . . . God only knows how I love you / but God and his ghost / and his roadhouse crew / ran me out of town on a silver rail / free at last and begging for jail.” Now that’s helplessness. That’s desire. That is song.

Others, like Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, bring a maniacal abandon to the song that reduces so many to timid pretenders, singing of “the toothless kiss of skeletons / in summer hail” on his brilliant Wonderful Life LP. “I’m the king of nails,” he concludes as a grunged-up crescendo of guitars and pounding drums blasts the song to hell. Linkous’s talents are evident in the company it attracts. Tom Waits chimes in on “Dog Door,” while PJ Harvey lends her gut-deep wail to the scorching “Piano Fire.” “Every hair on your head is counted,” he whispers on Goodmorning Spider, an album recorded not long after medics literally brought him back from the dead amid a paralyzing overdose that left him nearly crippled, “You are worth hundreds of sparrows.”

Ben Gibbard
Ben Gibbard

The greatest songwriters of a generation do not always fall in our laps as thunderously as they may have forty years ago, when Dylan, Cohen and Mitchell torched the world with a revolutionary fusion of pop and poetry that no one dared attempt before. In an industry far more saturated with underground talent vying for a platform than the likes of Cohen or Dylan had to contend with in their day, too often the finest talent is kept away from the radio and crowded off the stage.

The songs of Henry and Linkous will not be heard on your local FM station today, and they will never pose for the cover of Spin or Rolling Stone. But they are without argument producing work of vastly superior quality to the majority of the sludge that passes for song on the scene today. Do yourself a favor–download a tune or two by either of these geniuses. Then listen to the new Death Cab album. As beautiful and brave as Narrow Stairs may be–and it is most certainly a commendable piece of work by a good band–still I challenge you tell me who the great songwriter is. I’ll be waiting patiently for your answer.

Death Cab For Cutie: Narrow Stairs

5th May

Death Cab

“To be blunt, Narrow Stairs represents another bold attempt as the band continues to embrace the idea that their own smarmy drama pop should be less abrasive and grander on a scale both lyrically and instrumentally” — Michael Roffman of Consequence of Sound

With a new video out that’s about as inspiring as a night of bingo at the local Moose Lodge–our first glimpse of the follow-up to an album that some derided as the sell-out of the century–the light shines a bit uncertainly on all things Death Cab these days. The single, polished to a glossy sheen and boasting a typically ham-handed title of “I Will Possess Your Heart,” plays like an outtake that Coldplay recorded at gunpoint and burned before skipping town in a borrowed Mini, its muted guitars kept vaguely afloat by sputtering percussion as chintzy bursts of piano pepper the tune with more than a modest share of corn. Ben Gibbard tops things off with such revelatory turns as “You’ve gotta spend some time with me / I know that you’ll find love / I will possess your heart.” Pretty deep, dude. You’re killin’ me over here.

Thankfully for Death Cab fans, the album actually does get better from there–but only occasionally. And yet that’s exactly the kind of experience that most Death Cab albums deliver. “It’s comforting to know what you’re getting,” Pitchfork said of Plans, “Four or five songs you’ll treasure, four or five you’ll tolerate, and a pretty good band sticking to their guns.” This time around, though, the treasures are not so easily discovered–though there are treasures–and there’s plenty to merely tolerate. But if it’s the treasures we have to work harder to get to that we truly prize, then perhaps Narrow Stairs is on to something, delivering for perhaps the first time in the band’s career songs that are neither immediately gripping nor quickly dismissed, but rather material you need to listen to four times over before it starts to sink in like a challenging poem.

It’s both unsurprising and worrisome that Atlantic, the major label to which Death Cab signed in 2004 after a string of genuinely stirring records with indie label Barsuk, is describing their latest release as “their most daring and adventurous album to date.” Let me decode those pleasantries for you: “dude, we’ve listened to the album 30 times now, and we still have no idea what we’ve just heard nor how to market it. Let’s just call it ‘daring’ and head for the hills while we’re still in the black.” When a major label’s PR people characterize new records as “mature,” “adventurous” or “honest,” it’s usually code for “boring” or “Oh shit, we’re screwed.” So they call it “adventurous” to heighten the suspense, conning you into coughing up your gas money for an album that turns out to be a lot less interesting than they led you to believe.

Some of us who listened to Death Cab For Cutie albums before the radio told everyone else to do the same lamented the predictable excess of watered-down ballads their major label debut served up, a self-conscious “now we need to sound like the band they signed” paranoia that provoked the most claustrophobic production job of Chris Walla’s career, exchanging the bite of The Photo Album for the blather of Plans, the hard nose of “That’s Incentive” for the glass jaw of “Someday You Will Be Loved.” “It would be nice if a band reaching for a larger audience had a sound that matched that sense of ambition,” Pitchfork complained at the time.

As song after song on Narrow Stairs demonstrates, the boys heard the criticism, and they’re fighting back with mixed success. Though the album indulges some of the same water balloons and vapor the band packed into Plans, its more rewarding moments unleash a brazenness they haven’t displayed since Gibbard put out a cassette called You Can Play These Songs With Chords. “I hope this album is a bit of a surprise for those out there that think they have us all figured out,” Cab bassist Nick Harmer boasts. That’s fine, but the gripes that greeted their Atlantic debut a few years back were born not of boredom, but of affection for the band that Harmer & Friends left behind at Barsuk. Long before they turned to the ballads-by-the-numbers formula of Plans, they brewed organic indie-pop collections that sported as many teeth as tears, an occasional crunch of snotty guitar intruding to toughen the tempo. Plans, by contrast, sounded too much like a stump speech for President of Emo-Nation than a Death Cab album, drenched in the weepy whispers and atmospherics that give emo a bad name.

Confronting the confines of a major label’s conservative vision this time around, they depart more dramatically than ever from the band we knew just four years ago, with its 8-minute singles (“I Will Possess Your Heart”) and African drums (“Pity and Fear“). The frenetic “No Sunlight” exhibits an unfocused and discordant contrivance of noise that underscores the self-conscious anxiety of a band burdened by the pressures of the big time, while Gibbard sings as if someone’s waving a lit match under his ass as his voice strains to catch up to its own whimsical flights on “Cath” (a song that’s given a remarkably more moving acoustic makeover here.) “It’s a ballsy, brave effort,” James Montgomery opines at (there we go with the code words again), “sonically every bit as dissonant and sanguine as you have heard . . . tunes that display muscle and bravado.” All true, as it turns out; but the results, while thrilling at times, are far more uneven than the band’s establishment apologists would have you believe.

Narrow Stairs Cover

Something almost engaging happens on the admittedly charming “”You Can Do Better Than Me,” a clamor of Christmas bells and organ carrying the song to destinations no Death Cab album’s gone before. And the sonically massive “Pity and Fear,” for all its theatrics and distortion, features one of the grittiest vocal performances of Gibbard’s career, the edges of his fragile croon roughened by a morbid and memorable attitude. This is clearly not the Death Cab For Cutie you listened to in high school. We can cue the usual cliches here about maturity and evolution, but whether we want to buy into the story Atlantic is selling or work with the album on our own terms, ultimately Narrow Stairs is a conflicted–if beautiful–document of divergent creative paths. Familiar shades of Plans flicker amid the flames of a visionary angst that that album hardly even sniffed, and the band seems invested enough in those newer horizons to dig up more where that came from next time around. In the aftermath of such historic transformations as bands like Wilco and Radiohead have undergone, Narrow Stairs suggests that we may be witnessing another musical metamorphosis in the making–one with the rare potential to break its own ground.