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  Give Up  
  The Postal Service  
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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 mostly rave reviews.

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 money.

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 don’t mind.

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 is worthwhile.

The former is Frankensteinian. The latter is as natural as birth.

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.

Related Links:
  PosLibyan's surprising and untrendy negative review of DNtel's Life Is Full of Possibilites.  

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