Review Summary: The addition of 10 bonus tracks on the 2002 reissue makes it a very worthwhile purchase for any fan of the band’s earlier work.
Death Cab For Cutie’s first demo was first released on cassette in 1997, back when the band was a one-man project composed only of frontman and principal songwriter Ben Gibbard. The rest of the band would then come into the picture in time for the band’s full-length debut, Something About Airplanes, which ended up being an inconsistent but highly enjoyable collection of eccentric and melancholic indie rock songs that planted the seeds from which two brilliant albums would eventually grow. You Can Play These Songs with Chords was popular upon its release but quickly became overshadowed by Something About Airplanes, which featured many more polished versions of songs that were on the demo. So in its original form, this is not only a near-impossible purchase to make but also one that’s all too easy to see as not being worth it. While some may be drawn to the fuzzy, raw sound of the original demos, most would probably prefer the more focused, if not necessarily crystal-clear, production of Something About Airplanes and would likely leave the demo in the dust, never to be seen or listened to again.
And it’s in part due to the somewhat expendable nature of the original release that makes the 2002 reissue of Death Cab’s first kick at the can all the more fascinating. Released upon the shoulders of The Photo Album’s highly deserved success, the reissue has the original 8 tracks of the demo along with 10 varied, dynamic and emotional bonus tracks that not only would be tough to find anywhere else but also work beautifully together as a listening experience. Many of these recordings are among the finest of the band’s career; State Street Residential, Prove My Hypotheses and Army Corps of Architects are the more obvious standouts, but there are several amazing songs here that simply can’t be missed by fans itching for more material in the Something About Airplanes vein. The production is rough but in a way that has a certain appeal to it; Army Corps of Architects in particular, one of the best closers in Death Cab’s discography, never fails to have a nostalgic bite that will keep listeners coming back to it.
In terms of other highlights among the reissue’s bonus tracks, there are several, and each offers something a little bit different from the last. An earnest cover of The Smiths’ biggest hit This Charming Man leads to Tomorrow, a song a few tracks later with an obvious but not derivative Smiths influence, while TV Trays sounds a bit more like a tribute to Oasis. New Candles, a somewhat punk-influenced number, and Tomorrow both feature guitarist Chris Walla on vocals; a rare and exciting find in a discography characterized by Ben Gibbard’s clearly enunciated vocal delivery. State Street Residential and Prove My Hypotheses are both remarkable low-key tracks that wear early Death Cab’s trademark melancholy on their sleeves, and Wait is a heartfelt cover of a somewhat obscure song by The Secret Stars, similar to but much better than The Face That Launched 1000 ***s on Something About Airplanes. The alternate version of Song for Kelly Huckaby is just as great as the better-known version on the Forbidden Love EP, and while Flustered/Hey Tomcat! may be a weirder, more experimental track, it still makes for a fun interlude that eases the tension of the other songs a little bit.
There are even some perks to the original 8 tracks on the album, even if several of them already appear on Something About Airplanes. The sinister undertones of Champagne from a Paper Cup benefit immensely from the less polished production, and Gibbard’s somewhat harsher instrumental and vocal work is a bit more in keeping with the darkness and tension in the music. Line of Best Fit is also notably played at a faster tempo here than on Something About Airplanes, and so it drags far less and may even be a bit better than its later counterpart. Hindsight, That’s Incentive and Two Cars are all songs that didn’t make it to the full-length, and it’s difficult to understand why, seeing as they’re certainly better than the weakest tracks on that album. President of What", Pictures in an Exhibition and Amputations are the only tracks that benefitted strongly from being re-recorded; the rest were either good as they were here or never given the chance to reach their full potential later.
To say that the reissue of You Can Play These Songs with Chords is a better release than Something About Airplanes would be a bit of an exaggeration. After all, it is incredibly long at an hour and six minutes in length, and there is a lot of inconsistency, especially stylistically, that brings it down as a whole. But to say that it’s an unnecessary purchase when one is already familiar with Something About Airplanes would also be dead wrong. There is enough great material on the reissue to make it a perfectly worthwhile purchase, especially for fans of the band’s first two albums, and there are some songs on here that one would be absolutely silly not to listen to. As an overall experience, the reissue is more a collection of songs than a concise, unified work in the vein of We Have the Facts or The Photo Album, but it is still a great collection of material that shows off just what Death Cab For Cutie were capable of before the new millennium even came around. In other words, if you liked Something About Airplanes, listen to this. It’s well worth your time.