Martsch-ing forward 

Plus: Death Cab for Cutie looks in the rear-view

Doug Martsch
Now You Know
Warner Brothers

For Doug Martsch, life after Built to Spill appears to have been a fairly smooth transition. His first solo album, Now You Know, finds Martsch at ease with his new sound: heavily acoustic and coupled with introspective lyrics which allow the listener to feel that, indeed, “now you know” the real Martsch. Now You Know is a strange yet inspiring conglomeration of indie rock roots tracing themselves back to delta bayou blues, and there’s even a touch of Indian (as in the country) intonations. Martsch dips his finger into the slide for the blues, the notes falling slowly and gently, like raindrops slowly slinking off leaves before falling to the ground. Conversely, Martsch then allows his guitar the short, sharp sound that brings a sitar to mind. All of this creates a mood of mystical melancholy—a very laid-back ambience. Much of the album is drumless, or has only a minimal amount of bongo percussion, which works particularly well on the Appalachian stomp “Window.” But just when Martsch has lulled you into thinking he has sold off all his electric guitars, he busts out a number like “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind on Jesus,” which features distorted single-note picking in tune with the rhythm of his lyrics. Believe it or not, it almost has a Lynyrd Skynyrd feel to it, until Martsch adds layers—in this case, spacey keyboards—to the composition, ensuring that it sounds like nothing else and that any attempted comparison would be a true stretch. The closing track, “Stay,” has an old-timey feel to it, yet once the electric guitar subtly chimes in, it’s clear that Martsch has taken something very old and turned it into something very new, something that is his own. Throughout the course of the album, the phrase “Now you know” reappears several times in several songs, always sung in the same tone, despite the fact that each song in which the line appears is unique. The refrain is like a string of thread that the listener wanders back to in order to find his or her way through the unfamiliar forest. It is as if Martsch is reminding us that, yes, it’s still him. He’s still with us, just trying out some new stuff. And the new stuff is brave, naked and breathtaking. Welding beautiful acoustic guitar melodies with incisive lyrics, Now You Know is a giant leap in an exciting new direction for Doug Martsch. Death Cab for Cutie
You Can Play These Songs With Chords
Barsuk Records

There are a lot of bands out there who begin playing and recording before they are confident in their sound. But if the band is smart, they hold off on releasing this material until they’ve found enough fans that someone will appreciate their primitive struggles. This is the idea behind Death Cab for Cutie’s latest release. You Can Play These Songs With Chords. The songs from the album were originally recorded on eight-track before Death Cab was officially a band. DCfC’s Ben Gibbard wrote and played all of the instruments on these songs, while soon-to-be-bandmate Chris Walla “twiddled the knobs.” If you’re a die-hard DCfC fan, then this will probably be right up your alley—a kind of historical document of how far the music has come. But if you’re not ready to file for die-hard status, you might not be all that interested in these early recordings. Gibbard’s songs are one-man shows that lack the melodic balance that his bandmates have obviously added to his sound. The songs are linear and tedious, starting off on a narrow wimp-rock path and then failing to deviate even the slightest degree from the confines that Gibbard has established for himself. If you’re a beer-drinker, think of it this way: You Can Play These Songs With Chords is like having a couple beers but, instead of getting a buzz, you’re left feeling tired. The overall tone of the eight-track compilation leaves you wanting nothing more than to take a nap. The listener will not likely not understand what any of these songs are about, and the lackadaisical manner in which they are presented will likely not inspire much interest in or concern for the subject anyway. What saves this album is that, once the original You Can Play recordings are finished, DCfC has added ten previously unreleased songs. These ten “bonus tracks” far outshine the EP for which the album is named. Tracks like “This Charming Man” and “TV Trays” are much more accessible, with more of a pop-rock sound which, though probably less original, at least gives you some bang for your buck. Death Cab is a band comfortable in this role, and it is fortunate that Gibbons’ fellow Cuties stepped in and tinkered with his sound.

So is it worth buying? Well, the bottom line is this: There’s ten good tracks on this album, preceded by an eight-song EP that will make you glad Death Cab isn’t what it used to be. If ten out of eighteen works for you, then buy the album, skip the first eight songs, sit back and enjoy.

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