Tell Us the Truth
Death Cab for Cutie gives it to us straight, Kanye West blows up brazenly and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club misses the authentic mark
Death Cab for Cutie
On 2003’s Transatlanticism , DCFC mixed a big-guitar, Sonic Youth kind of melodic dissonance with the cleverest of clean West Coast pop. For this collection Plans plucks the sweetest, catchiest melodies from Trans (like “The Sound of Settling” and “Tiny Vessels”) and continues deeper into breezy California territory.
But only musically. Lyrically, just when you think Gibbard has lapsed into dreaminess, he gets more observant than you think you can stand, refracting back at you your emotional flaws and past mistakes. He’s the Kahil Gibran for no-nonsense, aging indie rockers who are starting to go gray and think about death. “Love is watching someone die. So who’s gonna watch you die?” Uh, gee thanks, Ben, for giving us something to ponder while we lie in bed alone at night.
But once the shock of recognition subsides, as Gibbard’s vocal harmonies layer over each other like images in funhouse mirrors, his literate tales are as cathartic as short stories into which we project ourselves—fearfully, knowingly. We’ll all die someday, but in the meantime, we can happily dread the end listening to Gibbard’s hopeful cynicism.
The son of a former Black Panther and an English professor, West is beloved for combining his intellect with his sense of humor, guiding his self-depreciating lyrics to make statements about life as a young black man; he’s become famous for his partnership with Jay-Z and for sampling forgotten songs. West’s known also for the comedy skits that thread through both of his albums. Last year’s College Dropout expressed disillusionment with a college education; this year, West introduces a fictional fraternity called Broke Phi Broke, who’s members chant, “We can’t afford no gas!” In the final skit, West is outed as a millionaire but protests that he’s only trying to stay true to his roots.
Whether they’re his or not, West always pays tribute to music’s roots. This time around, he sampled bits of Etta James, Bill Withers, Ray Charles and Otis Redding to create some fantastic numbers. He recruited Maroon 5’s Adam Levine to add his honeyed voice to “Heard ‘Em Say” and he pairs also with Jay-Z, Common and Nas. A collaboration with Brandy is disastrous, and a song about his mother even worse. In the end, it’s not easy to conclude that College Dropout was the superior of West’s two albums, but it seems as though it was an unrelenting storm, while Late Registration only spits with intermittent downpours of perfection.
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
To a point, it’s easy to get into these songs. On “Fault Line” a hollow acoustic guitar melody fills the spaces between Robert Levon Been’s musty, quivering vocals and harmonica. “Ain’t No Easy Way Out,” which is probably pegged to be the first single, has an undeniably catchy blues swagger. Then “Devil’s Waitin’” takes on the voice of a prison-hard renegade, which might be believable on a Johnny Cash album, but here it’s almost laughable, especially when a bunch of gospel singers chime in dramatically near
Things just get downright freaky when BRMC plunges into God-fearin’ territory with “Restless Sinner” and “Gospel Song.” When Jack White goes to that place, it’s tempered with the almost-comical manic falsetto in his voice, so it hinges ironically between devilish and pure. But here, Been sounds downright fervent, which might bring you right back to those Sundays sitting in uncomfortable pews fidgeting and staring up at the jigsaw of sunlight blinking through the stained glass overhead. So in the end, Howl does find some glimmer of truth one might relate to, but with a name like Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, is this really the truth it set out to find, or is it just the cool thing to do?