I've got this room mate who spends about eight hours a day watching movies. Nothing counterculture or avant garde, just big budget mainstream comedies. The story arc is always the same: Character development, love interest, conflict, happy ending. But this is standard for hollywood, it would be unrealistic to expect anything else. What's really unsettling is that the jokes within this structure follow a few basic patterns, never deviating. It's like a formula where the same numbers are plugged in everytime.
Death Cab for Cutie recently released a pop EP. The Open Door has everything that you need to be widely accepted, big hooks, big vocals, loud drums and catchy melodies. Ben Gibbard's voice sounds strong and confident, even at it's most vulnerable. The push and pull between a laid back drummer and insistent bass player makes for an intriguing band dynamic without distacting from the more poppy aspects of the songs. Chris Walla's guitar is the most avant garde contribution. It sounds dangerous, loose and frightening in a very powerful way.
Death Cab for Cutie's newest EP has loads of mainstream appeal. They discuss familiar themes, songs about how hard it is to find and keep love, about the pitfalls and misunderstandings of commitment; certainly not new subject matter. Any of the topics that Gibbard writes and sings about can be heard on a plethora of previous recordings. In fact, turn on the radio and chances are you'll hear somebody talking about something pretty similar.
But like I said, it's only halfway mainstream. In my roomate's case the jokes all follow a formula and the punchlines are fairly predictable, so that you know just when to add your own laughtrack. Death Cab does not conform to this particular aspect of the mainstream. The punchlines are surprises and the jokes are unfamiliar. Like in "Little Bribes" where Gibbard describes a slot machine as "a robot amputee waving hello", or in "I Was Once a Loyal Lover", a self-effacing assault, where he describes himself as someone "Who thinks that that life with a nice girl/Is like waiting for a bus to work." Lines as descriptive and unanticipated as these are what seperates Death Cab's music from the people on the radio, and what distances it from the mainstream.
It might seem repetitive to write songs about topics that have been covered before. There are so many new ideas to discuss and so much new ground to cover. But as much as Death Cab's songs are about familiar topics, the way they communicate them is entirely unexpected. The funny thing about old ideas is that an unfamilar description can change them. A new perspective is just as good as a new thought.