These guys don't really need much of an introduction; selling tens of thousands of records finds them in the position of being indie-rock household names, and with good reason. You Can Play These Songs With Chords isn't a new record, but it's an excellent look back, a collection of records past. I bought the original cassette, You Can Play These Songs With Chords, many moons ago, and I thought it was awesome. For a cassette release, it sounded great! At the time, I was innundated by bands or singers with tape releases, and some (okay, most) were not very good. Death Cab for Cutie's goodness shone through a lot of the shit of that era. Who knew that they would soon become indie-rock superstars?
This collection, which shares its name with the debut tape, is a reissue of that original tape, plus ten other obscure or unreleased goodies. Considering that much of that original tape was rerecorded for their debut album, Something About Airplanes, it's only mildly interesting listening. As terribly purist as this may sound, these songs really don't seem the same on CD, and don't seem as strong as they did on that original tape. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the limited sound quality that a cassette gives can really help to gloss over other weaknesses, such as awkward playing or rough mixing. I was kind of shocked, too, at how rough it sounded--I didn't recall it sounding that way.
While it is interesting to hear the tape again, the main reason anyone would want to pick up You Can Play These Songs With Chords would most certainly be the ten extra songs. This section starts off with a slightly pointless and rather bad cover version of the Smiths' classic "This Charming Man," complete with screwed up lyrics and general goofing around. /Much better are "TV Trays" and "New Candles," which really hints at Gibbard and Walla's magical musical future. "Tomorrow" is a bit of a shocker, as it's a rather funny, "wow-this-is-Death-Cab-for-Cutie?" kind of way--it's a rather earnest dance song, complete with drum machine and keyboards! "Flustered/Hey Tomcat!" is also a bit of a shocker, as it's a bizarre experimental number that's based around tape loops and other kinds of things. These two tracks really need to be heard to be appreciated fully. The last of the unreleased songs, "State Street Residential," is a reject from their debut album, and you can easily understand why: it's boring. The rest of the songs come from obscure releases. "Wait" and "Prove my Hypothesis" come from an excellent 1999 release, "Song For Kelly Huckaby" is a remix of an EP cut, and "Army Corps of Architects" is the B-side from their rare Sub Pop Singles Club release.
While You Can Play These Songs With Chords doesn't really add anything new to Death Cab For Cutie, it does help to show their humble beginnings. If you were in to that sort of thing, I'm sure that you could make a real Cinderella story out of their history, and this record would be just enough fodder for you to start. While I wouldn't recommend it to new fans, I wouldn't dismiss it as simply for completists. It's lovely in its own way, and it's a good little diversion for those eagerly awaiting their next brilliant release.