Review Rewind: Death Cab for Cutie-They Can Play These Songs with Chords

1,405. that’s how many local recordings have been reviewed in What’s Up! over the last 15 years. Some good, some not so good, all offering something to the local scene and in these pages. A review was and will always be a band’s chance to get some press and show folks what they are doing. If a band lives around here, or on a local label, we review it and have never turned anyone away if they met one of those qualifications. Among the recordings reviewed, a few really stood out for one reason or another – it might have been how good it was or the impact it had on the scene or the statement at that time. This issue, we re-reviewed 15 of our favorite records over the last 15 years (and included a blurb from the original review) and talked not just about the music, but why the recording is important in the music scene’s history. Every one of these recordings should be on your iTunes, find ‘em, listen to ‘em, love ‘em. We do.


March 1998: “Well, this is the tape that everyone’s been talking about. Death Cab this, Death Cab that, have you heard the new Death cab tape? People just won’t quit talking about Death Cab, and for good reason. This tape is phenomenal.”


I’m listening to You Can Play This Song with Chords, Death Cab for Cutie’s debut album, on Spotify, because there’s literally no way for me to play it at home. Because it’s a cassette. Remember those?

In fact, the last time I hit play on this particular tape was probably the year of its release, 1997, driving around in my piece of shit Buick Regal, thinking that I’d finally heard a band that was going to make it out of Bellingham.

And hey – they did.

Some of these songs show up later on the band’s Barsuk CD Something About Airplanes, and for the most part, you’ll recognize them on Chords.

“Pictures in an Exhibition” starts differently, with echoing sticks counting in and a muffled “all right” from Ben Gibbard, who’s credited with all instruments and vocals, save for background vocals by Chris Walla and Abi Hall on one track.

Hall’s voice on the closer, “Line of Best Fit,” still sounds remarkable.

The liner notes ask the reader to send “hate mail” to the band’s actual Ellis Street address, the first location of the “Hall of Justice,” where Walla recorded and produced the album.

Listening to it now, the record sounds muffled, messy, like it’s being played underwater. But the songs are there.

At the time, that house was more memorable to me as a place to get drunk and watch The X-Files, or sit on the porch wondering what the hell the years ahead would bring.

For Death Cab – eventually fleshed out by bassist Nick Harmer, drummer Nathan Good and Walla playing any number of strange instruments besides guitar – it was only a matter of time before Seattle called.

In fact, it was at the Breakroom on Capitol Hill where I first laid hands on Airplanes. Then it was shows at the Crocodile and, well, you know the rest.

But for me, this little cassette tape will always be a time capsule filled with memories of the city where I really grew up. Discovered new ideas, and new friends, some of whom are still making some pretty amazing music.

(Track list: 1. President of What?; 2. Champagne from a paper cup;
3. Pictures in an Exhibition; 4. Hingsight (sic); 5. That’s Incentive; 6.Amputations; 7. Two Cars; 8. Line of Best Fit.)