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Death Cab for Cutie: You Can Play These Songs with Chords Death Cab for Cutie 
You Can Play These Songs with Chords
[Barsuk; 2002]
Rating: 6.4
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Wanna make a home copy of You Can Play These Songs with Chords for free, without taking your chances of drawing the RIAA's ire and endangering your ability to hold political office in the future? Dust off a vinyl copy of Death Cab's 1999 debut Something About Airplanes, dig out that old Fisher-Price record player (the tan-colored one with the fat needle), stick a pillow over the speaker, and play it at about 27 rpm. Wal-la!

This Mr. Wizard solution works because the meat of You Can Play These Songs with Chords is a reissue of the band's treasured demo tape of the same name, eight ultra-lo-fi recordings released on cutting-edge cassette format back in the simpler times of 1998 when said band was comprised only of Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla. Five of the eight songs later turned up with increased fidelity on the official debut, Something About Airplanes, and like most of that album, the representatives here contain at least one great moment surrounded by a lot of mere goodness: the envelope-glue sweetness of organ-laced "President of What?", the subtle guitar melody shift a minute into "Champagne in a Paper Cup", the "I'm def-in-ite-ly shaking" segment of "Pictures at an Exhibition".

So, these five tracks were obviously enough to plant the seeds for a happy indie label contract, but what of the other three? Well, two of them (the surprisingly punk-paced "That's Incentive" and pleasantly forgettable "Hindsight") weren't done much injustice by languishing in obscurity, but "Two Cars" was worth digging out of the attic. Melancholy/playful organ complementing Gibbard's nice guy vocals, simple Walla-brand production, and non-flashy drumming keep the song appropriately approachable-- it's almost mopey-friend enough to fit on the band's high water mark We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes.

Eight songs and twenty-nine minutes leave a lot of blank disc space, though, so Barsuk has graciously filled out the package with assorted breakup-rumor-starting rarities, to the point of outweighing the featured material 10-to-8. Too bad the first five of these are, frankly, rather embarrassing, representing an era that suggests the image of Death Cab as high school band playing graduation parties. Heretofore unknown tendencies to sound like a) They Might Be Giants fans ("TV Trays," "Tomorrow"), b) by-numbers pop-punk ("New Candles," an unwisely suped-up "This Charming Man" cover), and c) vocal sample experimentalists ("Flustered/Hey Tomcat") all come back to haunt, like yearbook photos from when you used to part your hair.

The latter five tracks, collecting seven-inch odds-and-sods for vinyl-phobes, fare a bit better, as they feature later incarnations of DCFC more confident in their dreamy sound. "State Street Residential" and "Army Corps of Architects" are wobbly first steps exploring the vaguely slowcore epic approach employed on the Stability EP, while the cover of Secret Stars' "Wait" is obvious, but plays to DCFC's strengths when they put their guitar thang down, flip it, and reverse it (er, subtly) all over the coda. An early version of "Song for Kelly Huckaby" is the one useless inclusion of this quintet, which otherwise as a package comes close to the fine Forbidden Love EP, but without a clearly essential standout like that release's "Photobooth" (the two-tiered "Prove My Hypotheses", however, comes close).

These last few tracks raise the ownability of You Can Play These Songs with Chords considerably, but it's still not really a must-have collection for anyone that doesn't have a Ben Gibbard shrine in the corner of their dorm room. In fact, the release of this early material would be most useful as a reminder to the band themselves that they always sounded better recording in a living room, blanketing their output in warm hiss and simple rhythms. And while the recent departure of overcompensating drummer Michael Schorr may have already pointed them in this direction, a listen to their own reissue certainly couldn't hurt.

-Rob Mitchum, November 25, 2002

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