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The Postal Service offers up the first rocktronic masterpiece

Wednesday, Apr 30 2003
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What is the sound of one hand stroking? Some might say it's "bedroom electronica," that depository for home-grown bleeps and whizzes. Such music often feels solitary, even masturbatory -- as if its creators couldn't decide between rubbing their chins and other, more nether parts of the body. Sure, some of the tracks sound grand, but many of them fail to connect, bypassing human contact for technological advances and solo muckery.

This lo-fi electronica is the opposite of indie rock, which at its best grabs listeners, sticks a tongue in their ears, and flings them to the carpet. Indie rock strives for communication; there's an implicit desire for an audience, as opposed to bedroom electronica's casual shrug.

In this age of recombinant inspiration, more and more artists have been trying to combine these two styles. Germany's Morr Music label has built a whole stable of players working from the concept. On a larger scale, the Chemical Brothers have utilized the vocal talents of Oasis' Noel Gallagher and the Verve's Richard Ashcroft to boost their dance tracks, while pop icons like David Bowie and Madonna have asked electro producers to make them more au courant. Oftentimes, however, these juxtapositions sound forced and wrong, like wasabi spread on peanut butter.

Now, the first great rocktronic collaboration has arrived. With Give Up, the Postal Service -- Death Cab for Cutie wordsmith Ben Gibbard and Dntel/Figurine beat-maker Jimmy Tamborello -- has delivered a CD that zigzags across genre borders so many times it erases them. The twosome has taken something that shouldn't work -- Gibbard's emotive indie rock crossed with Tamborello's laptop glitchery -- and made it seem as natural as your daily mail. And they did it all while living 1,000 miles apart.


Prior to the Postal Service, Jimmy Tamborello had plenty of experience mixing indie rock with electronic sounds. Life Is Full of Possibilities, his 2001 effort as Dntel, included vocal help from his one-time bandmate Chris Gunst (Strictly Ballroom, Beachwood Sparks), That Dog's Petra Haden, folktress Mia Doi Todd, and one Ben Gibbard. L.A. native Tamborello and Seattleite Gibbard met when Tamborello's roommate, Jealous Sound bassist Pedro Benito, recommended Gibbard for the Dntel project. Tamborello sent him a skeletal version of "(This Is) the Dream of Evan and Chan."

"He said, 'I think this one would be perfect for you,'" Gibbard recalled last month, calling from Tamborello's home, where the group was rehearsing for its first tour. "Evan and Chan" came out so well that the two decided to have a go at more songs, even though they didn't know each other and lived in different states.

Starting in December 2001, Tamborello sent Gibbard a regular stream of CD-Rs with a couple of instrumental electronic numbers on them. "There was no game plan in the beginning -- I just wanted it to be different from the Dntel stuff," Tamborello says. "The easiest thing to do was make it lighthearted and poppy."

Tamborello's Dntel songs tended to be dark and gritty, the kind of bedroom electronica that was more suited to goatee scratching than booty bouncing. So for the Postal Service he crafted song beds that were more upbeat and insistent, with sweet, buttery hooks and big, synthy melodies. "The couple times [Ben and I] were in the same place, we would watch a lot of MTV -- Avril Lavigne and stuff like that," Tamborello explains. "I think there's at least some sort of wondering what it's like to make music like that, and just enjoying it for how easy it is, and how effective it is as pop music."

Initially, the process of working with a semistranger who wasn't in the same room seemed odd to Gibbard. "Jimmy and I have become friends," he says, "but there was a time, when I sent him the first songs, where I was like, 'Oh, I hope he likes these.'"

"It's the exact opposite of being in a band," Gibbard says later. "I love being in a band -- there's something about working together in a room with the amps turned up that's really great. But it's also a really refreshing change to come off a tour and find a package waiting for you, with a couple songs you can do whatever with, at your own speed and your own time. ... Every time a package would come, it would be like a little vacation."

For Death Cab for Cutie, Gibbard was writing mostly autobiographical, lovelorn lyrics -- the kind that sensitive indie kids put on mix tapes -- but Tamborello's music inspired him to look on the brighter side of life. "My writing was based on my impressions of the stuff that Jimmy was sending me," Gibbard says. "So in the case of Jimmy sending me 'Such Great Heights,' it's just the poppiest, happiest song ever. It'd be hard to write some sad bastard lyrics into something as jumpy as that."

The music also encouraged Gibbard to write lyrics of a psychedelic, daydreamy fashion, outside of his own experience. In "Sleeping In" he dreams of a world in which global warming is just an excuse to swim any day in November; in "Brand New Colony" he imagines himself as a pair of platform shoes so he can "undo what heredity's done" to his paramour.

The surreal feel of the lines has much to do with how he wrote them. "I'd put on headphones and walk around and daydream," Gibbard says. "And -- not to get too hippie about it -- I'd see where the music took me, let my mind drift."

One of the places it drifted to was the rampant paranoia following 9/11. "We Will Become Silhouettes" is one of the most eloquent songs written about that time. Over a cheery, skipping beat and "ba ba" harmonies, Gibbard recalls how it feels to be stuck in your house, afraid that "the air outside will make our cells divide at an alarming rate."

Such juxtapositions of light and dark are what make Give Up work so well. (It's even there in the title: Together, the words have a negative meaning, but separately, they have positive connotations.) For each romantic offering (the singer calls "Such Great Heights" his first "positive love song"), Gibbard slips in a hint of dark clouds to come. And he's never been in better vocal form, layering addictive melodies in his hangdog fashion. (Harmonies from Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis and Seattle folkie Jen Wood add a nice sweetness to the proceedings.)

For his part, Tamborello litters his party-ready "four-on-the-floor" techno rhythms with melancholy keyboard parts and pulsing drum-machine spasms.

Not everyone has agreed that Give Up is an electro-pop godsend. After the album was released in February on Sub Pop, Magnet magazine said the CD's concept was "as fleeting as a traipse through an Urban Outfitters clearance sale," denigrating the beats for being "clearly post-marked 1984."

Tamborello shrugs off the criticism. "No matter what you do, if you update techno-pop, it kind of happens -- it'll sound like the '80s," he says. "With Figurine it was the same kind of thing: We were trying to be '90s, and it always got the '80s comparisons."

As a cheeky way of puncturing such comparisons, Tamborello composed the furiously paced "Natural Anthem," what he calls his tribute to "late-'90s drill 'n' bass." Over a menacing, rippling beat, Gibbard tells how he'll write a song that "will rally all the workers on strike for better pay/ And its chorus will resound and boost morale throughout the day." Sounds better than "The Star-Spangled Banner" any day.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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