Monday, November 24, 2008

Death Cab for Cutie. The Forbidden Love EP (Barsuk, 2000)

"And as the summer's ending/ The cold air will rush your hard heart away."

I'm a big fan of the EP format. EPs tend to be really focused works, with clear positions distinctly and succinctly conveyed in a handful of tracks, effective and potent distillations of ideas and concepts. Sometimes the ideas work and sometimes they don't, but there's only a few songs on the thing, so it'll be over soon either way. For this same reason, EPs have been, I've found, a good way to determine whether or not you're gonna like a band in its full-length incarnation.

Plus, some of my favorite releases from some of my favorite bands have been EPs: Pavement's Watery, Domestic, Polvo's Celebrate the New Dark Age, the Afghan Whigs' Uptown Avalon, Golden Smog's On Golden Smog, a bunch of others. EPs often find bands showing off their influences, or setting the tone for future long players. And sometimes an EP gives a band the chance to release some high quality material that simply couldn't fit on the preceding or succeeding LPs. Death Cab for Cutie's intoxicating The Forbidden Love EP is a case of the latter, a brief glimpse into what earned this band its early reputation for expertly constructed, introverted indie pop. Forbidden Love is, to be perfectly honest, as strong a collection as Death Cab have ever put out.

This EP features three previously unreleased songs and two reworked tracks from Death Cab's genius 2000 full length We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, one of the best albums of the aughts, in my opinion. The three new tracks are to a man amazing. "Photobooth"'s metronomic cadence, soaring strings, and shimmering chords are autumn twilight encapsulated, the melody and arrangement brilliantly capturing the bittersweet sentiment of the lyrics as Benjamin Gibbard wistfully murmurs, "And this is all that's left/ The empty bottles, spent cigarettes/ So pack a change of clothes/ 'Cause its time to move on."

The majestic "Technicolor Girls" finds stately, glacially plucked guitars etching out a gently devastating air, the subdued tempo underscoring the sadness and desperation embraced by the finely drawn, high school confidential verses: "Patiently you wait/ For a courting boy's embrace/ Then everyone would know/ But the letter jacket wasn't yours to own/ And it proves to be on a temporary loan." "Song for Kelly Huckaby" lopes and crashes before bursting into the EP's heaviest hitting number, a towering, teetering shrine to abrasive distortion.

As good as the new songs are, the two reworked tracks can't be dismissed. An acoustic version of We Have the Facts's "405" reveals the song's undeniable beauty as well as Death Cab's considerable vocal harmony abilities. An alternate take of "Company Calls Epilogue" casts the tune in a more detached, emotionally taciturn light, the echoey production and deep-space-transmission vocals emphasizing the disenchantment of lines like, "When they lay down the fish will swim upstream/ And I'll contest, but they won't listen/ When the casualty rate's near 100%/ And there isn't a pension for second best/ Or for hardly moving."

In the years since Forbidden Love was released, Death Cab for Cutie albums have yielded increasingly diminished returns. The band unfortunately seems to have surrendered to its blander nature, turning out pleasant, competent, not overly captivating records distinguished chiefly by their failure to live up to Death Cab's initial output. But The Forbidden Love EP, like We Have the Facts, is unassailably great, and is a good enough reason for Death Cab to have won some recognition. It's vast talent wrapped in a tiny package, and if this is the only Death Cab you ever hear, then that'll do nicely.