on October 17, 2012
I came into Ben Gibbard's first solo album as a casual fan -- I mostly enjoyed his Postal Service project, and there are moments when Death Cab for Cutie can hit dazzling heights with their music. However, I've never really been captivated by his voice or lyrics. I went into FORMER LIVES with no real expectations -- I just had no idea what to expect: would it be electronic pop? Bare-bones singer-songwriter fare? Death-Cab-Style Power-pop? It turns out that the Death Cab for Cutie front-man's first solo album is a good effort, but it's missing the spark that his projects carry.
FORMER LIVES starts with the enigmatic "Shepherd's Bush Lullaby," a track just shy of a minute long that mostly consists of a capella performance. The next track though is a bit more representative of the album's sound: "Dream Song" is a mostly uptempo ballad that's interrupted with some dreamy textures periodically. Most of the songs on the album follow this sound: generally uptempo middle-of-the-road rock-n-roll that have occasional flashes of texturing or experimentation. The tunes here are very melodic, and it really feels like Gibbard spent a lot of time trying to craft these songs -- these songs' meat-and-potatoes approaches work well, but they might leave fans of Death Cab for Cutie's experimental side wanting. The lyrics here range from the good to the great -- Gibbard, going through a high-profile separation from a certain famous actress, seems to have plenty of things to say here (CODES AND KEYS seemed to lack any real emotional focal point that other albums carried). "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)" stands out like a sore-thumb with its mariachi horns -- the sound really doesn't work for the singer-songwriter no matter how subtle he tries to be with it. The album ends with "I'm Building a Fire," a bare acoustic track that provides an intimate feel. It concludes FORMER LIVES with the sensation that Gibbard is singing just in the next room, so in a way, it stops just as it starts, with Gibbard's vocals bearing the weight of the songs.
Ben Gibbard's FORMER LIVES is good, but it's not great. If anything, this record is an interesting example of Gibbard on his own, removed from the band that brought him fame. I would recommend it to fans of Death Cab for Cutie that can't wait for the band's next release. Listeners that are new to Gibbard would probably do well to start with an earlier Death Cab record (like TRANSATLANTICISM or PLANS) before jumping into this one. Give it a shot -- it's not a blind purchase, so I would recommend sampling a few songs first before making a decision. Essential tracks to sample or download: "Dream Song," "Lady Adelaide," and "Bigger than Love."
on January 25, 2013
I didn't realize he was making a solo album until I saw the iTunes "Pick of the Week" card with his single "Teardrop Windows". He also did a "Tiny Desk Concert" with NPR which I caught some of. I finally bought this album, and was definitely not disappointed.
Overall, the theme of the album is classic Gibbard, with songs about love and loss written in his characteristically poetic manner. However, the instrumentals struck me as much more catchy and upbeat than the Death Cab for Cutie stuff--a little more indie pop and less abstract. I actually like that a lot.
Some albums are kind of "difficult" to listen to in full--there's a few great songs and the rest never really captures my attention. This is most assuredly not one of those albums. Every song has something catchy about it that makes it worth the listen. I get the feeling that this is a carefully curated album of the best of the unused songs he's written over the years.
Of course there's always a few favorites. "Teardrop Windows" was a good choice of single as it clearly draws a line between the Death Cab sound and the Benjamin Gibbard sound. There's parts of it that echo "Crooked Teeth" with it's melodic guitar riffs and upbeat drum tempo, but it also has an elegant simplicity that's uniquely his. "Dream Song" is another standout with it's piano solo, and "You're A Hard One to Know" deserves an honorable mention for it's compellingly honest lyrics. There's a lot of people who would speculate that the latter was written about his recent divorce. Not sure about that, but it does make for a great song.
Overall, this was a very impressive album. I wouldn't call it a departure from the expected Death Cab for Cutie fare, but it does have a lot of musicality that I wouldn't have expected. Great solo album, and I hope there will be more to come in the future.
on November 29, 2012
I started listening to Ben Gibbard about a year ago when I discovered The Postal Service, which I loved. After a while I started listening to Death Cab for Cutie, and that's now my very favorite band. I think Ben Gibbard is a very talented person, and this solo record proves that. All in all, it was a well-executed album with a wide range of musical styles that most people, especially fans of The Postal Service and Death Cab, will enjoy listening to.
Shepherd's Bush Lullaby: (5.75/10) I really wanted to like this one, but it was just so strange I couldn't take it seriously. It wasn't really bad, but it was just so weird with its "bum-bum-bum" thing going on in the background and its extreme briefness that I didn't like it all that much. But it's still worth a listen, and I like it, but I don't LOVE it.
Dream Song: (8.5/10) This song perfectly illustrates the creepy feeling of dreams. Musically, it reminded me a lot of "Different Names For The Same Thing" of the DCFC album Plans. The best part of the song is the out-of-sync piano/keyboard solo during the instrumental part. It adds to the creepy-but-happy feel of the song.
Teardrop Windows: (8.5/10) This song is a more acoustic track that is one of the least Death Cab-like songs on the album. The lyrics are pretty downer, but you wouldn't know because the upbeat guitar and vocal style give this song a more cheerful feel. I've heard this song is about the Smith Tower in Seattle ("in 1962/ the Needle made its big debut" possibly referring to the Space Needle and "when the sun sets over the Sound he just goes to sleep" possibly referring to the Puget Sound) but I don't know for sure. This is one of the best tracks on the album, but gets old after a while.
Bigger Than Love: (9.25/10) This could very well be the best song on the album-- just about neck-and-neck with "Something's Rattling (Cowpoke)". Aimee Mann makes an appearance on this duet track. Her voice clashed a bit with Ben's, and I feel like they should have gotten a different singer to sing with him (maybe the girl from "Nothing Better"?), and I would've given this song a 10 out of 10 if they had. The electric guitar and lo-fi sounds give this song a very Death Cab for Cutie feel, and won't disappoint fans of The Postal Service, either.
Lily: (8.75/10) This one is very sweet, and a great song. It's not at all Death Cab for Cutie or The Postal Service, but it fits Ben very nicely. It's very simple, musically, and one of Ben's happier songs. The only thing I didn't like about it was how short it was. It could have used an extra verse, because right when you go from liking the song to loving it, it ends. If it was maybe thirty seconds longer, it could have been 10 out of 10.
Something's Rattling (Cowpoke): (9.5/10) Like "Bigger Than Love", this could be the best song on the album. I liked the subtle use of mariachi trumpets and soft "ooh-ooh-ooh"s in this track. It had a very outer-space theme, and made me think of a cute kids' picture book about space or the moon or something like that. This is a great song, with great instrumental background sounds, and beautiful vocalizations by Ben.
Duncan, Where Have You Gone?: (5.25/10) It's okay, this one is my very least favorite track on the album. It sounded like it could be on some sad Charlie Brown show where Charlie Brown is sad about something and walking home in the rain or something like that. It's a bit cheesy. I did like the guitar solos and lo-fi quality, though.
Oh, Woe: (6.5/10) Like "Teardrop Windows", this is a sad song hidden behind happy and upbeat instrumentals. This song didn't stand out much to me, but it's still worth a listen. I think the words would have worked much better paired with less happy and upbeat instrumentals. It follows in the footsteps of Death Cab's more recent stuff (like Codes And Keys), but isn't quite there.
A Hard One To Know: (8/10) This is one of the album's stronger tracks, and tells the story of a wishy-washy girlfriend. It's the indie non-teenybopper version of Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" (Not that I'm comparing Ben to Katy Perry, I'm not, just the lyrics of their songs). The Care Bears-like keyboard solo and the way Ben sings " Cause you're a ha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ard one to know" are some of the highlights of this song.
Lady Adelaide: (8/10) A very sweet, tropical song. The xylophone/mallet solo, shakers/maracas, and the claves (just guessing on the instruments they used here...) give it a very tropical feel. It's hard to believe that this is Ben, because this is so so so different than Death Cab For Cutie and The Postal Service, but it's a very solid song.
Broken Yolk In Western Sky: (8/10) The book "The Red Pony" is brought to mind when I listen to this song. It's a good song, and very different from the other tracks on the album with its steel guitar and country feel, and is very satisfying, if a little cheesy.
I'm Building A Fire: (9/10) This is one of the better tracks on the album, and made me think of "I Will Follow You Into The Dark" off Plans. It's a very good closer for the album, and I can imagine this song being sung around a campfire (hence the name "I'm Building A Fire"...). It's pretty sad, and if you're the type to cry during songs, you'll probably cry hearing this one.
Overall, I liked this album. The variety on this album is just so wide that it's hard to put it into a genre, and I can't imagine anyone singing these songs but Ben Gibbard. If Ben comes out with a second solo record, I'll probably get that one too.
on October 17, 2012
This is a great first solo album by Death Cab for Cutie's front man. I'm a big Death Cab fan and I feel that this album stands up well against the other CDs that I have come to love from that band, as well as the Postal Service project. The lyrics and music have the same characteristic poignant/sweet/melancholy tone that we have come to expect from this talented musician. There's even a duet with Aimee Mann, another favorite artist of mine, and the two sound great together. I strongly feel that most Death Cab fans will enjoy this album. The only downside I would say is that it's a little short in length (I like when albums are at least 45 minutes long - that way I feel like I'm getting my money's worth) but clocking in at about 37 minutes or so this album feels like a polished little gem, and it's worth every penny.
on December 7, 2012
I've liked Benjamin Gibbard and his work with Death Cab. It's hard not to be drawn to his unique voice. But in this solo album he explores in ways that, in hindsight, feel strangely liberated from his work with the band. The range of approach to songs is wonderful, like each one is a new gift to open. And yet this is one of those albums that is all too rare these days, an album on which the songs connect and are interwoven with each other. And no one writes such thoughtful lyrics as this guy. In an age of flash trends and songs of the moment, it is truly a treat to listen to this album, but even more to know it will log itself as a favorite for a long, long time to come.