Death Cab for Cutie are such a self-made accomplishment. Without radio airplay, major label support, or a video in heavy TRL rotation, this formidable foursome from the Pacific Northwest has forged a career that most one-hit blunders would envy, or even kill for. They've built a loyal and long lasting fanbase, a worldwide collection of devotees drawn to the band's earnest emotion and intricate instrumentation. From their first broken down van tour to the latest in luxury bus travels, these are artists who did it for themselves, a group that cemented its future on a sturdy foundation of respect and effort. Last year, they hit the road to satiate their following before making the leap into the possible corruption of the corporate mainstream. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully is the name of the documentary of said expedition, a film that proves that honest hard work is a reward greater than anything illicit or illegal.
As much a testament to their tenacity in a ruthless industry as a souvenir to a single tour, Drive Well, Sleep Carefully finds Indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie at said crossroads. It's a good place to be for the road weary Washington band. After seven years together, numerous crisscrosses through America (and elsewhere) and a growing catalog of interesting, introspective songs, the group is poised to capitalize on the prime time Q rating and sign a major label deal. As they prepare to once again board the bus and perform a series of club dates, their future is brighter than ever. And thanks to filmmaker Justin Mitchell, this seminal shift in the band's popularity, this move from obscurity to 'overnight sensation" is being captured for all posterity. Over the course of this fascinating film, we hear the following songs from the Death Cab for Cutie canon:
"The Sound of Settling" - from the 2002 album Transatlanticism
Don't get the wrong impression of this film, however. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully doesn't want to be the latest Some Kind of Monster, or offer up a tell-all take on the tainted trappings of the music biz ala End of the Century. This is also not a straight concert film meant to showcase the band in their performance prime or make some manner of grander cinematic statement circa Stop Making Sense. Mitchell makes this very clear at the beginning of the film. Over shots of the band, he lets us know very specifically that this is not a Behind the Music movie, or a 'warts and all' grab for attention. Instead, this is the simple story of a diligent group of musicians who've been lucky enough, via hard work, perseverance and recognizable ability, to find a niche in the ever-shifting scene of popular music. Drive Well hopes to highlight the amazing grace of the band as a unit, as well as the centered and sane figures behind the noise. And this is exactly what Mitchell's movie does. It delivers four formidable talents trading on their love of rock and roll for an extended stay in the all too brief limelight.
Musically, Death Cab for Cutie can be a little off-putting, at least initially. Their song style is best described as evocatively ethereal, with guitars chiming through jangling signatures as underlying ambience forms from the resplendent rhythm section. Complex lyrics recall merry melancholy with lead singer Ben Gibbard's high-pitched vocals layering over the top like a long lost sigh. Together, Death Cab for Cutie creates a wholly unique sound, an enigmatic echo that resonates beyond the basics of simple three chord song structures. They dabble in pop, prog and punk. As a group, they are tighter than a hooker's hotpants. The music they make has the ability to seem both improvised and precise at the same time, a mix of the archaic and the atmospheric that transcends both trappings. Still, with the exception of a couple of tracks ("The New Year", "Transatlanticism") there are very few instantly memorable tunes here. Fans of course will know every note, enraptured by the chance to see their heroes recreate their specialized sonics onstage. But individuals new to Death Cab will probably wonder why, of all the artists currently making their way across the pop culture landscape, superstardom seems poised at these boys' doorstep of din.
This minor misgiving aside, Drive Well still delivers. It shows us the reality of life in a rock band, the almost never seen side of professional musicians actually WORKING for a living. Death Cab for Cutie make no bones about their good fortune. Each member seems centered, selfless and completely dedicated to the betterment of his bandmates. They constantly confide in the camera that they are still in awe of each other as musicians, and spend inordinate amounts of time breaking down appearances to drag out the best bits from their shows. In some ways, they come across as a little obsessive/compulsive, micro-managing their muse down to particular notes played in very specific ways at precise intervals. But at other times, that rock rebel persona comes peeking out, and the group really dives into their dense wall of sound. Many of the songs here are mid-tempo meditations, intricate tone poems more interested in mood than the anthemic. Yet somehow, Death Cab for Cutie can make even the weepiest track sound epic. It's one of their true strengths.
Drive Well is also standing evidence of the effect the 90s "alternative" scene had on the current music business. Along with the Internet, file swapping and increased technological capabilities, bands like Death Cab can manage their own music without major label input. They own their own studio space, produce their own records, and up until this film, used outsider means to distribute them. They admit that the leap to Atlantic is a bid for financial security - and not just for themselves, but family and longtime associates as well. They also acknowledge that some people will see the shift and scream "sell-out", arguing against their ability to stay true to their art and serve the star-making machinery behind the popular song. Drive Well doesn't really get into this discussion. As with most of its material, it breezes over the deeper issues involved in rock and roll to make a very simple, very surface statement. And in a year that has seen its fair share of broad scoped dissertations on the burden of being an 'artist', this is both refreshing and sort of retro. It reminds us that, sometimes, all a band has to do is make music to get its point across.
Indeed, the concert footage is what truly sells Drive Well. Death Cab for Cutie are an amazing live act, and they move about the stage with passion and purpose. The direction by Mitchell is deft, always managing to capture the dramatic moment in a song or sound. It's fun to watch a band so in tune with each other, functioning as an organic whole, not a closed combination of barely gelling parts. Especially remarkable is Nick Harmer's bass work. If there is an unsung hero of Death Cab, it's this fierce fireplug with a very unfortunate hairdo (sorry Nick). His lines and fills are so forceful, anchoring the entire sonic shroud that the group creates. He literally keeps several songs from flying off into the ephemera. It's painful to think of what the band would be like without him. While Walla and McGeer more than validate their place in the line-up, it's Harmer who steals the stage show here. Along with Gibbard's signature singing, it's what makes Death Cab for Cutie exceptional.
Drive Well, Sleep Carefully (one imagines this is a wrongly heard send-off from a parent or loved one - the title is actually never explained) is an excellent documentary of an equally adept band. The music may not be immediately memorable or moving, but the sound definitely grows on you. As the crowds queue up, hoping to hear their newfound favorite act, Death Cab for Cutie does appear ready to enter the mainstream fray. They have built a solid foundation out of tireless effort, friendship and fortitude and just may outlast the critics who call their sound obscure or arcane. True, they may never rise to the level of a U2 (or in tribute to their home town, Nirvana), but they appear ready to make rock and roll their LIFELONG career. After all, they've done pretty well over the last seven years, and if something about the major label diversion disappoints them, the DIY spirit has proven its potency to them before. Death Cab for Cutie didn't just arrive with a key to the kingdom. They had to forge their own. Drive Well, Sleep Carefully illustrates their career carving skills marvelously.