Dumb Luck

(Sub Pop; 2007)

By Christopher Alexander | 18 October 2007

Jimmy Tamborello is, to me, one of the more interesting characters in the recent history of indie rock. He's perhaps best known for his collaboration with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, the Postal Service--a project that had sparked on the last Dntel album some six years ago, and eventually became something like an indie phenomenon in 2003. The group's debut Give Up sold 500,000 (!) copies, and paved the way for vocalist Ben Gibbard to score major label cash with Death Cab. It may also be the quintessential example of indie rock's transition from a ghettoized amalgamate of pop-centric and outré influences to a highly codified form propelling OC soundtracks, where its success came not from word of mouth and poorly Xeroxed fanzines but by blogs and internet music criticism. Tamborello, for better or worse, was left behind in Death Cab's step to the big leagues.

Also interesting to me is that Tamborello's production is an accessible distillation of the techniques pioneered by indie producers, as well as some well placed pilfering of the bigger names in glitch, like Aphex Twin and Kid 606. See for example the title track to Dumb Luck, his third release under the Dntel name, and the only sung by him alone. It's not difficult to hear Phil Elverum's influence all over this record, but it's especially noticeable in this song: one iteration of the verse sounds little like the next one, and his melody hangs in the air, lofty and uncertain--both Elverum calling cards. Tamborello merely replaces the lo-fi sonics with an elaborate electronic whoosh, but he gets the same ornamentation and fragility. It's also interesting that, unlike virtually every other big name electronic producer with any degree of success, Tamborello exhibits practically no influence of hip hop in his songs; his drum patterns sound closer to Nine Inch Nails records than they do the Bomb Squad.

The other thing that interests me about Tamborello is that his records bore me to fucking tears, even when I half-way like them. This may have to do with his choices in collaborators: when the strongest and most personable vocal performance on your album is that of Connor Oberst, you're going to be in trouble. (I'm nodding my head toward Jenny Lewis, predictably on auto-pilot throughout "Roll On.") I think that's the one main thing that stops me from getting inside of these records the way Tamborello himself clearly is, despite that the melodies are certainly there. "To a Fault" is deftly executed and has a brilliant coda, but Grizzly Bear vocalist Edward Droste doesn't pull his own weight. Likewise, on "I'd Like to Know," which has a swirling, snap-back rhythm but is ill served by Lali Puna's whispery singing.

Sadly, the only true victories on Dumb Luck are Tamborello's own title track and Oberst's "Breakfast in Bed." The latter is a good song in its own right, a wistful recollection of a one night stand made the more lovely by Tamborello's rising melody. He is also difficult to pull from the ether, but on this song it matches the just woken up eye of the lyrics. It's effecting here; on the rest of the album it's merely insulating. Then again, that may be the point: he views each voice as another sample in his arsenal, just one more hue on the palette. He needs his vocals to be indistinct, and what better way to accomplish this than to choose indistinctive singers?