REVIEW: The Postal Service: Give Up
The Postal Service: Give Up [Subpop, 2003] (mp3)
Three words? Pretty Pepsi jingles.
The fact that side-projects almost always suck is based entirely on mathematics. If you have beaten the odds once and are in a great band already, what chance does your side-project have of harnessing the same greatness? Is Looper ever going to be as beloved as Belle and Sebastian? Will Brad render Pearl Jam redundant? Of course: they will not.
Postal Service is the collaboration of Death Cab for Cutie lead singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard and electronica-head James Tamborello a.k.a Dntel. Their debut album, Give Up, makes them the latest to question the laws of common sense.
Unless you’re German, music made entirely with computerized instruments is likely not appeal to you. However, Tamborello has the good sense to let his synthesizers and drum machines be synthesizers and drum machines, rather than have them imitate their manual equivalents. The warm cadence he summons from his sterile electronics is indisputably impressive: the whistling synths are reminiscent of the garbled sound of worn-out VHS tapes and the sparingly used guitar lines are clean and taut. In fact, everything here is clean, including the sprawling, propulsive drum loops which are challenging yet repetitive enough to be catchy, like Aphex Twin cured of his ADD and/or pretentiousness.
All this good clean fun results in some enjoyable highlights. "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" opens things up beautifully with Ben Gibbard at his broke-hearted best, putting to rest any argument that lions out-shine districts in the realm of sleeping-alone-tonight. The second song and first single "Such Great Heights" continues the momentum. With the right marketing push, "Heights" could Hot Hot Heat-style sweep the nation, but it won't. Give Up’s zenith is its fourth song, the "Hey Paula"-for-2003, "Nothing Better." The song has Gibbard’s character clumsily trying to win back his girl, lame marriage proposal and all, and when the beat drops and the faux-French-horns swell behind her as she pronounces, "I feel I must interject here," we can understand why he’s scrambling.
In the land of Side-Projectopia, Postal Service is king, but Give Up will not likely replace any of your Death Cab CDs. The songs lack substance and Postal Service never sounds like an actual band, but rather like an interesting indie-rock pairing. A friend once told me that Give Up sounds like "a collection of Pepsi commercials," which might actually be an accurate summation. As good a lyricist as Ben Gibbard is, his words are overshadowed by the dance-y (often obnoxiously dance-y) music that swirls around him. Give Up has an obvious formula: upbeat tempo, swaying/bubbling/accordion-mocking keyboards and Gibbard’s poetry-laced storytelling. They stray from this blueprint long enough to make one more stand out track, the cold and beautiful "This Place is a Prison," whose title doubles as a metaphor for the band itself: Postal Service trapped within a mess of fast, clean songs, each one more the same than the last.