Ben Gibbard | Former Lives (Barsuk)

gibbard foreverI really wanted to love this record, but I don’t. I don’t think a lot of people will love it, either.

 

I would have loved this record in high school; probably my freshman year of college, too. I mean, at the time, Ben Gibbard was one of the leading forces in my musical tastes—but that has since changed quite a bit. I mean, not to say he isn’t talented, but the decline happened rather quickly, if you ask me. Nevertheless, Gibbard is still an incredible songwriter and has shown that through many avenues (see All-Time Quarterback, The Postal Service, Death Cab for Cutie), so when I had the chance to review this record, I jumped at it.

Let me start by saying I was surprised by a lot of this track list. Back when I was a younger man, I found a lot of joy in downloading bootlegs of the few Ben Gibbard solo shows. I had recordings of him doing Backstreet Boys, Cyndi Lauper, and a handful of originals, so I sort of assumed that this solo record would echo a lot of those sounds, and to a point it does.

Take “Broken Yolk in Western Sky,” for example. This was a track I first heard some seven-plus years ago, but the new incarnation of it sounds overly produced. Maybe this is the sentimental me, but the original bootleg recording was just Gibbard, a guitar, and a crowd that couldn’t get enough. The song sounded real and was one of my favorites; I still listen to it on occasion. The new version of it sounds like something that would get a lot of plays on country radio…

And that is the reason I haven’t kept the love of Gibbard’s projects that I once had. Death Cab started to sound like it was manufactured for top 40 radio, and then I couldn’t stand it anymore. I am not trying to pull the “he sold out” mentality a lot of people lay on bands that sign to a major label and see a progression; I know that this is par for the course. But Death Cab was already a pretty well-produced group, and the Atlantic recordings have all had a sort of wedding band sound to them. By that I mean they sound like they are playing through processors and digitizing all of their sounds in order to obtain a very specific sound.

Now, getting all of my complaints out of my system, Former Lives does still have some really great tracks that do sort of yield to the older recordings I was so fond of. “I’m Building a Fire” sounds like it was recorded in a very nice studio, but returns to the equation of Gibbard and guitar. Probably my favorite song on this album, it brings me back to being 17 and thinking I knew what “good” music was.

Another noteworthy offering is “Oh,Woe.” Somewhat of a departure from what I would expect on a Gibbard record, distorted guitars and a rock-driven back beat cause this track to really stand out. The vocals seem to have a hard time matching the music, but I do love the instrumentation quite a bit. The guitars and piano on this track are just incredible, and any review that fails to point that out has missed something special.

Further through the record, “Something’s Rattling (Cowpoke)” is another good song. I wouldn’t call it great, but it is noteworthy. I think what makes this interesting is the use of distinctively Latin American sounds. When I think of any Gibbard project, images of the Northwest and winter come to mind, and this record breaks from that. I see Former Lives as more of a journey, from inner city, driving into the country, and heading for the Southern border, which is where this track comes into play. The brass on this track is incredible but, again, I wish I could have just the instrumentation.

So Ben Gibbard finally released a solo record, and it is kind of what I would expect from him in the year 2012. It is not anything groundbreaking; it seems to mash up his past and his current, while laying a path for what the future may hold. I am not sure that the title of this album fits; perhaps a more apt title would have been Lives of My Former, exploring the paths that got him to where he is now and what will come next. I really wanted to love this record, but I don’t. I don’t think a lot of people will love it, either. It is not terrible by any means. The instrumentation is incredible and there are a lot of tracks that, with a little work, could be truly remarkable. But as it is, it sounds like a compilation; it sounds broken; it needs work. B- | Alex Hodschayan

RIYL: Ben Kweller, Death Cab for Cutie, Wilco

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