According to The All
Music Guide, The Postal Service is “an electronica-meets-indie-rock-supergroup.”
Wow. That sounds very impressive and very, very hip. It also
sounds like something I would run screaming from while randomly
hurling extra copies of Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath
records behind me like some metal-head ninja warrior on the
lamb from the Yakuza. I’m just sayin’, that’s all.
The electronica portion of this super group resides in the
person of one Jimmy Tamborello, a glitch DJ with indie-rock
connections who performs solo under the name DNtel. In 2001
DNtel’s debut, Life Is Full of Possibilities garnered
There was at least one dissenting
voice to be heard, though.
Generally speaking, if the P-Lib drops a one-sponger on an
electronica record, I’m not going anywhere near it. That’s just
the way we work together, out in the real world. If he, as official
voice of the beehive, simply raves about a techno-pop or ambient
album, I will occasionally give it a try. If I rant non-stop
about a new punk rock band until he can’t take it any more,
he’ll sometimes give it a try. But if either of us pans something
in our given “home genre”, the other is probably unlikely to
exert any time on it. This saves us both a lot of time and CD
So, I was blissfully ignorant of Jimmy Tamborello’s entire
catalogue up until The Postal Service. I don’t think I’ve missed
much, really. But, as PostLibyan mentions in his DNtel review,
one of the guest vocalists on Life Is Full of Possibilities
is Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. He wrote a lovely little
pop song called (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan,
and then Tamborello did that glitch thing that no Minion can
seem to understand on it.
Now, I am a big fan of Death
Cab, and a lot of that is due to Ben Gibbard’s vocals. Gibbard
has that certain ability that truly great pop songwriters have:
the ability to take the mundane and everyday and elevate it
to the realm of the poetic. He also has the pre-requisite ability
to write song after song after song that not only makes you
feel his heartache and obsession for love lost, but actually
makes you believe that an indie-rock superstar actually has
this many problems getting laid. He’s a truly wonderful writer
and his voice, ranging from the near Bee-Gee helium octaves
down into the moderate baritones of non-castrati, provides the
perfect medium of delivery.
What I’m saying here is that, were I a junior-year indie chick,
I’d probably consider a Gibbard poster for the dorm room. As
it stands, history, biology and orientation being what they
are for me, I just like to occasionally sing along, living vicariously
the “in the end I always win, because ink remains” dream of
most every at-some-point-hurt guy.
And Ben Gibbard is the indie-rock portion of the "electronica-meets-indie-rock-supergroup"
that is the focus of this review.
So, what I was presented with in regard to The Postal Service
is the tension between a glitch artist that, regardless of the
hype, not even PostLibyan can embrace, and a full set of ten
new Ben Gibbard songs. It was a difficult thing to decide. The
CD budget is limited, after all, and there was still the new
Merge comp as well as The Slaughter Rule soundtrack
that Bloodshot has out to consider.....
Enter Kazaa. (See our semi-official policy on file-sharing
software is posted in a Guestbook entry from last year, under
my name.) I decided to cheat a little, so I did a search on
DNtel and The Postal Service. Every track from both Life
is Full of Possibilities and Give Up was
available. I’m not saying you should download them in lieu of
buying the record, I’m just saying they’re there.
What I first noticed was that there were multiple versions
of (This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan out there. A
little web research turned up a 2002 EP of the same title, with
the original album track, four remixes (so very techno), and
another Dntel/Gibbard work called Your Hill. I pulled
down a few of these and wasn’t terribly appalled. Yes, Tamborello’s
glitching glitches up the vocals a little too much, but there’s
still enough Gibbard present to make someone like me happy.
Also, the work seemed, to my ear, an extension of the neo-synth
pop direction Death Cab toyed with on The Forbidden Love
EP. So mollified, I moved on to The Postal Service.
The first thing that strikes me about Give Up
is the inversion of influence from the previous collaborations.
On all of the material released under the DNtel auspices, Tamborello’s
DJing is the primary focus. Gibbard’s vocals, rather than driving
the melody and tone of the songs (a la the Death Cab catalogue),
are simply another aural pastel from which Tamborello creates
his collage soundscapes. A primary color, to be sure,
and clearly the dominant element in the compositions, but the
DNtel/Gibbard collaborations are still quite clearly DNtel art
using Gibbard as a medium. This is why Gibbard’s vocals, like
those of all of the guest vocalists, are buried and over-written
on Life is Full of Possibilities and the remixes.
Give Up inverts this relation. If you read the
biography notes on the band, you’ll eventually run across the
story of how “the name ‘The Postal Service’ is a reference to
how Gibbard and Tamborello exchanged songs and ideas.” What
you are not likely to stumble on is the answer to why they
decided to rename the authorship in the first place. When
you ask this question, the answer becomes pretty clear, I think.
The previous releases were Tamborello’s work, contributed to
by Gibbard. The Postal Service isn’t; rather, The Postal Service
is a Gibbard/Tamborello collaboration, and this is significant.
The creative forces at work in a band proper is much more democratic,
or at least less imperial, than those of a “guest appearance”,
and that is evident here. These are Ben Gibbard songs. Jimmy
Tamborello provides often-brilliant rhythmic blips and bleeps,
samples, sound collages, and the finely tuned percussive engine
of the band. But The Postal Service is no more a DNtel side
project than it is a Death Cab one-off.
This makes all the difference, really. Gibbard writes great
songs. Tamborello, regardless of what you may think of his solo
work, creates multi-textured aural landscapes out of the slightest
of scraps. As far as glitch goes, he’s damned good at it.
And when you put the two together, on equal footing, you get
some of the best pop of the decade to date.
Give Up sounds like a deconstructionist remodeling
of either Berlin or The Human League, or both. Like some TLC
home improvement show for music, you can hear Tamborello wandering
through the structure of Riding on the Metro and saying,
“This could work. This can be updated. That couch has simply
got to go.” In the meantime Gibbard is seen on cut-away with
red ink pen in hand, completely re-editing Don’t You Want
Me into several different, more perfect stanzas. Wacky carpenters-cum-handypersons
Jenny Lewis and Jen Wood (both from indie rock bands that neither
I, nor likely you, have ever heard of) drop in to perfect an
entry arch, or add a little baroque detail, or just look good.
[NOTE: Actually Jenny Lewis’ regular band, Rilo Kiley, is playing
The Echo Lounge next month. Go fig.] As the show develops the
audience is just absolutely sure that the entire project is
going to collapse in on itself and leave everyone in tears,
but by the time you get to the end of it you’re just stupefied
by the rightness of the design.
Really. It’s just like that. Look, I’m as skeptical
as anyone about the prospect of remodeling the 80s. It’s always
seemed to me that that decade, much like the 70s, should just
be gutted completely and the plot used for some useful, non-garish
edifice. But first with Imperial
Teen’s On, and now with this, I’m actually
enjoying the hell out of sounds that lean heavily on influences
out of that decade.
Life is so weird.
Give Up opens with a low viscosity crude oil
of low-end synth drone, a three note sequence dropping into
the deep end of the slick for about 12 seconds before Gibbard
dives in: “Smeared black ink”, following the same mini arpeggio
as a Casio-tone salsa beat sneaks in behind everything. “Your
palms are sweaty, and I’m barely listening, to last demands.
I’m staring at the asphalt wondering what’s buried underneath…”An
octave shift to the upper registers with “Where I am”, with
one of the Jen’s providing accompaniment. As the lyrics move
into second stanzas and choruses Tambollero starts dropping
rhythmic blips and more up-tempo synth sequences in, beginning
to drive the song forward with an increasing pace that matches
the emotional turpitude of the vocals. All the while the Jen-Gibbard
“where I am” is recycled into a backdrop foil for lyrical juxtaposition
to Gibbard’s continuing storyline. By the time he gets to the
choral payoff of “A stranger with your door key. Explaining
that I’m just visiting. I am finally seeing, that I was the
one worth leaving…” the texture of the song has itself morphed
into a mirror of the protagonist’s inner turmoil, all dissected
strings and guitar fills that are beautiful but lost and alone,
fading helplessly into history.
It’s quite fucking brilliant, if I do say so myself.
You move seamlessly into track two, Such Great Heights,
with the Casio opening everything with a much less dour ambience.
The bass line drone trips in secondarily this time, and that
simple difference changes the tone from depressed and melancholic
to settled and foundational. Enter Gibbard: “I, am thinking
it’s a sign, that the freckles in our eyes, are mirror images
and when we kiss they’re perfectly aligned…” Tone matches word,
word correlates to hand-clapped percussion, form creates function.
Sheer bloody poetry. Structural engineering in sound, an aural
double helix growing in upon itself.
The whole album’s like that. Sleeping In rides a Gibbard
fever dream of a painless world to airy heights, Tambollero
turning a sample of some guy saying, “snap the picture” into
the percussive impetus for the entire first third of the song.
The Jens are omnipresent again as backing flourishes, as subtle
as the whispers of conscience in the DJ’s mix.
It’s not until track four, Nothing Better that one of
the Jens becomes more than an accompanist, but when she does
pop up as a discreet voice she re-writes almost the entirety
of Gibbard’s back catalogue. See, Ben writes songs about the
love he will always be losing. He sings love songs to the girls
that are always walking out the door. All the time. To
paraphrase fellow heartbreak crooner Rhett
Miller, this is what he does. So when the female
voice pops into the middle of one of Gibbard’s near-perfected
self-pity sessions, “I feel I must interject here, you’re getting
carried away feeling sorry for yourself, with these revisions,
and gaps in history,” it’s startling in the meta-narrative.
All of a sudden you’re presented with a more fully developed
world, one in which quite possibly our hero lyricist is leaving
out relevant details in order to make himself feel better.
Again, this is fucking brilliant stuff. The call and response
handoffs are so reminiscent of The Human League’s Don’t You
Want Me it’s kind of scary, but dammit all to hell, it works
like nobody’s business.
Recycled Air provides an ambience so in tune with its
lyrical plotline, the narcotic dread of flying (away) you almost
miss it. Clark Gable takes the self-reflexive first person
narrative song to new heights, opening with an almost carnival
organ sound that wouldn’t be out of place on a Portastatic disc
before moving into the primary rhythm section that somehow manages
to play with flourishes of disco and still not suck.
Really. I kid you not. And a chorus line of “I want so badly
to believe that there is truth and love is real. And I want
life in every word to the extent that it’s absurd.” It’s amazing.
How does he get away with saying that out loud? Where the hell
are the sincerity police? Where are the irony mongers? I’m aghast,
yet I’m humming along.
It’s not until track eight, This Place Is a Prison,
that you feel Tamborello move out of the shadows and up front
and center. By this time, you’re so entranced by the seamlessness
of the whole that you’re not bothered at all. (It also helps
that even at this point he’s still restrained.) The whole song
sounds like the soundtrack to a William Gibson adaptation of
a Kafka novel, or maybe just something you’d hear in Chinatown
or Blade Runner. Noir, I believe, is the word
I’m looking for. Brand New Colony continues further into
Tambollero’s stomping grounds, dropping non-traditional rhythms
out of the sky and building the melody and lyrics behind it
while setting the stage for the album closing Natural Anthem,
the closest thing you hear to a DNtel track. By this time you
The moral of my story is two-fold, yet simple. First, question
your assumptions and test your personal bias against new material.
I like this album a hell of a lot. It’s not my normal fare by
any means, but damn, it’s addictive. I don’t think I’ve listened
to another disc in its entirety since I got this one. I certainly
wouldn’t have expected that a week ago.
Second, we have a perfect example of why techno works or
doesn’t all in the back-story of this one disc. See, electronica,
even when technically insurmountable (as even Tambollero’s work
with DNtel is), is cold, machinic and off-putting without some
element of humanity to it. And that humanity can’t be something
that’s reduced to composite parts and reconstituted to suit
the whims of the machine. That just makes the inhumanity of
the sound even more noticeable. That kind of music is only
good for coding or raving, both themselves activities posited
on the desire to remove the human from an equation. But, if
you take the elements of the machine and sculpt its technical
precision onto the graft of the human, you can create something
eloquently beautiful. You can enhance humanity itself, and that
The former is Frankensteinian. The latter is as natural as
I was, in all honesty, going to give Give Up
six sponges. My original plan was to nitpick a couple of minor
details here in the final wrap up and “knock off a sponge.”
(If you want to know these quibbles, feel free to email me.)
But as I’ve gone through the album again I’ve decided that I
will not do that. I think I was worrying about how other reviewers
weren’t giving it perfect reviews and that maybe I was missing
something. But now, you know, fuck that. This is a great record.
It’s better than anything DNtel has put out so far, no matter
what hipster argues otherwise. I can see myself listening to
this non-stop for months, and moving it into the “always in
the car” rotation of driving music. If that’s not a seven-sponger,
I don’t know what is.