Death Cab For Cutie

    Something About Airplanes (Barsuk, 1999)
   ½ We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (Barsuk, 2000)
     Forbidden Love E.P. (Barsuk, 2000)
      The Photo Album (Barsuk, 2002)
   Stability EP (Barsuk, 2002)
    You Can Play These Songs With Chords (Barsuk, 2002)
     -Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003)
     Plans (Atlantic, 2005)
    — narrow Stairs (Atlantic, 2008)

No one made prettier postmillennial indie rock than Bellingham, Washington, foursome Death Cab for Cutie. Smarter and more sensitive than almost any of his studiously introspective peers, singer/songwriter/guitarist Benjamin Gibbard formed the band — with bassist Nicholas Harmer, guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla, and, eventually, crack drummer Jason McGerr — after the tape of his solo cassette EP, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, suggested there was a market for charming little photocopies of Built to Spill's quieter, reverb-warped tunes. (Barsuk's 2002 reissue bundles these with later, equally charming alternate takes and rarities.)

On Something About Airplanes, Death Cab took a baby step toward what would become their defining sound, smoothing over jittery guitar grooves with Gibbard's salve of a voice (previously a squeak) and slow builds. The five re-recorded cuts from You Can Play These Songs With Chords, subtly streamlined, showcase the band's new emphasis on delicacy over dissonance. The critical breakthrough We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes applied the same principle, plus a smattering of psychedelia, to a new batch of songs with better melodies. But the best of that album's tracks, "Company Calls Epilogue" and "405," are fully realized as simple strummers on The Forbidden Love EP, which came out later that year.

While sometimes nostalgic, as its brilliant name suggests, The Photo Album showcases some of Gibbard's most scathing, not to mention most beautiful, songs. The urgent yet dreamy "Why You'd Want to Live Here" joins rock's long tradition of ripping into L.A.—"You can't swim in a town this shallow/You will most assuredly drown tomorrow" — and barrels into a break that's smoggy with fuzz and shot through with sunbursts of chiming guitar. In "Styrofoam Plates," gorgeously gentle but for its broken, unrelenting beat, Gibbard addresses his "bastard" father as he spreads the man's ashes, the weariness in his voice giving way to anger: "You're a disgrace to the concept of family/The priest won't divulge that fact in his homily/And I'll stand up and scream if the mourning remain quiet/You can deck out a lie in a suit but I won't buy it." And how does he end the song? "La la la la la-la/la la la la la-la."

Transatlanticism is a breathtaking exploration of how far heartstrings can stretch before they lose shape. Gibbard plants a land mine in the gently rippling guitar reverb of "Tiny Vessels," recounting, for once, a one-sided romance in which "she was beautiful/but didn't mean a thing to me." But most of the record is devoted to tiny moments with mighty effects on love. "Title and Registration" and "We Looked Like Giants" show the band at its best, pushing lovely melodies with borderline-restive rhythms.

Death Cab for Cutie made their leap to the big leagues with Plans, their first album for Atlantic Records. They start off grand, singing about stretching their arms around New York City on "Marching Bands of Manhattan," and aim big with two hooky singles: the jangly "Soul Meets Body" and tail-chasing "Crooked Teeth." Gibbard steps out solo for acoustic tear-jerker "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" and lets his gentle, clear vocals hold together the second half of the record, which relies more on plinking synths than epic strums. Overall, Plans is a sturdy follow-up to Transatlanticism, but it lacks some of its predecessor's lush cohesiveness.

Nearly everything about Narrow Stairs is harder: The sounds are harsher, rhythms more complex and lyrics darker. First single "I Will Possess Your Heart" starts with a five-minute instrumental vamp before Gibbard unravels a menacingly eerie promise to dig his way into a girl's life. On "You Can Do Better Than Me," he sings about staying in an unsatisfying relationship ("The Sound of Settling," indeed) over a Beach Boys-style wave of sound. The band revisits a Built to Spill-style jam on "Cath…" and whip themselves into a frenzy on the propulsive "Long Division." Where Plans ripples, Narrow Stairs crashes. But growing pains are rarely accompanied by such a heart-stopping tenor. — nICK CATUCCI AND CARYN GANZ

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