Much of what the world knows as “alternative” is actually post grunge, a subgenre of alternative if we’ve being generous, that has a little in common with alternative and a lot more in common with mainstream rock music. Much of what people now seem to dislike about alternative rock music and its brief dominance of radio in the 1990s is essentially a facsimile of alternative. What was new and exciting in alternative is cliche in post grunge, is boring, is unexciting, is safe, is really indicative of a particular time. Post grunge only started in the early ’90s, when a bunch of bands and labels realized that there was money in replicating aspects of the alternative rock sound, but polishing it so that it was commercially palatable. This has happened many times in the history of pop rock and it will happen again. Alternative rock had been around for basically a decade but, to most of us, the grunge explosion and then the post grunge explosion is what we think of when we think of “alternative” music, for better or for worse.
What does any of this have to do with Death Cab for Cutie’s debut record?
What we think of indie rock in the 21st century is really a whole bunch of different things, but one of them is an earnest singer, singing plaintively – and rather flatly – about their feelings or about particular stories, over music that is just quirky enough to sound “indie” but not quirky enough to fail to sell records or, heaven forbid, to remind anyone of what indie rock sounded like in the late ’80s or early ’90s, when it was often lo fi and willfully difficult. I put it to you that the success of Something About Airplanes is indie rock’s post grunge moment, the point at which someone figured out that elements of indie rock could be repackaged in a safer, more polished format that could actually potentially be played on a mainstream radio station.
Gibbard’s sense of melody is pretty decent and his lyrics are fine. The arrangements sound like this is a band that is holding back from playing the sound of the bands they like. It’s Built to Spill without the ambition, without the guitar solos. It’s any Elephant 6 band with a rock backing but without any of the quirk. If this is indie rock, what does mainstream rock music sound like?
6/10 because I think Gibbard is a pretty decent songwriter.