February 15, 2013 by Johnathan Guest
There may be no feat as improbable in the music industry as making a supergroup equal the sum of its parts. A band that forms with members who are superstars in their own rights is unwillingly raised to high expectations and bound to disappoint somehow. That being said, there are a few bands such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; the Traveling Wilburys (Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne from Electric Light Orchestra); and Blind Faith (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker of Cream, Stevie Winwood and Ric Grech from Family) who make good music together. But usually, supergroups are curiosities such the Dirty Mac — consisting of John Lennon from The Beatles, Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones, Mitch Mitchell from The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Clapton — who performed only once at the Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968. Imagine those legends trying to make an album together; their individual achievements are so distinctive that collaboration might have been impossible.
Cut to late 2001, when Los Angeles indie electronic artist Jimmy Tamborello, who records under the name Dntel, released the album “Life Is Full of Possibilities.” It is a great release, if not spectacular, but the point of interest here is the ninth track of the album, titled “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan.” The song opens with cacophonous and brittle distortion under which pop sensibility is trying to emerge. Then the waves part and the voice of Ben Gibbard (lead singer for Washington state indie pop band Death Cab for Cutie) appears, and everything changes. Gibbard’s lilting melody shines through the surrounding electronics that threaten to drown him out.
At this moment, the album departs from Dntel into something else entirely: a compelling mix of Gibbard’s tenor projecting almost childlike wonder and Tamborello’s chaotic yet melodic production. You can hear the potential in this collaboration immediately. Thankfully, the two artists decided to collaborate further, releasing a whole album together as The Postal Service called “Give Up” on Feb. 18, 2003. In doing so, they produced a musical singularity: a collaboration between artists with promising careers of their own that combines their differing elements so well that it exceeds the sum of its parts.
Of course, Gibbard and Tamborello couldn’t make an album of “Evan and Chan” knockoffs. That song is close to how The Postal Service ended up sounding, but Tamborello strips his production down to something cleaner and crisper on “Give Up,” giving Gibbard more voice in the mix. The opening track, “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” makes this distinction very apparent, keeping the core collaboration while adding a syncopated yet polite beat, somber strings, stellar backing vocals by former Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis, and the subtle crackle of worn-out vinyl. Then “Such Great Heights” follows, and all doubt about whether or not this collaboration is fruitful is thrown out the window. The first 40 seconds of iconic darting synths, almost robotic synth bass and a beat so delicate you might mistake it for the swish and patter of feet, show how The Postal Service was able to do more with less.
The rest of the album draws on the same sounds and lyrical themes but is never short of excellent. Even though Gibbard and Tamborello were working on their main projects primarily and had to collaborate via the actual U.S. Postal Service —Tamborello would send Gibbard tracks, which Gibbard would sing over and edit as he saw fit — they put forward some of their best work with this album. Ten years later, there is no doubt that “Give Up” is a landmark of electronic pop music and a wonderfully unique and original take on its genre.
This influence and acclaim does come from the fact of this miracle collaboration, but it has its own merits of songwriting prowess and outright charm. Gibbard’s musings on love and reminiscing are all backed by a pervasive wooziness. The core sound of The Postal Service cannot be described as a dance number or a definite bestseller (though obvious imitator Owl City would parlay its sound into substantial popular success over the last few years), but none of that matters when you hear how “Give Up” is so endearing as a whole. The album is so remarkable that perhaps it’s better that Gibbard and Tamborello leave the legacy of The Postal Service alone. Much to the chagrin of fans, it still looks like the duo does not have an album in the works. But don’t rule it out, considering the duo is going on tour in addition to the 10th anniversary reissue of “Give Up” with unreleased tracks that show this collaboration still works well. Regardless, the comeback of The Postal Service is a testament to the lasting quality of the record that started it in the first place.