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10 Years, 100 Songs: #59. “Until the Telephone Started Ringing…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 9, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

The eventual success of the Postal Service was one of the more interesting musical subplots of the Naughty Oughties. The group, a collaboration of producer Jimmy Tamborello and vocalist Ben Gibbard, became popular the old-fashioned way–through word-of-mouth (or word-of-internet, at least) hype built up with the release of their album Give Up, and its accompanying single “Such Great Heights.” The album never really had a commercial breakthrough, but remained steadily omnipresent in the pop music background for several years, eventually selling nearly a million copies despite never even cracking the Top 100 of the Billboard charts. “Such Great Heights” was something of a future classic, catchy, unabashedly romantic, and brilliantly produced, with its stereo-panning introduction making for one of the decade’s most unforgettable hooks. But aside from “Heights” and eventual follow up “The District Sleeps Alone Tonight,” the album’s songs weren’t strong enough to weather the insipid sentimentality and awkward phrasing of Gibbard’s lyrics. Besides, the best song that the Postal Service ever did–the song which provided the impetus for the entire project, in fact–wasn’t even on it.

Jimmy Tamborello was, somewhat obviously, the less attractive member of dNTEL (Q rating-wise, anyway, as I have no idea what Jimbo actually looks like). Gibbard had the cachet of coming from Death Cab for Cutie, one of the bigger-culted indie rock bands of the early decade (and one which got significantly huger later on), and had the benefit of being the singer, with that unmistakably nasal whine, not a great voice by any means but one which sounded unguarded and somehow relateable. But it’s arguable that Tamborello was the more talented, important member of the duo, as his quirky and spritely compositions helped make palatable Gibbard’s hackneyed schmaltz–which, even on a song as good as “Heights” or “District,” still was bound to cause at least a moment or two of pause. On his own, though, Tamborello was even better, his 2001 full-length Life is Full of Possibilities (as pseudonym dNTEL) enduring as one of the best electronic pop albums of the decade, and the album’s climax, “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”–his first ever collaboration with Gibbard–proving to be a finer, more indelible song than anything the Postal Service since released.

That said, there’s no way that the Postal Service would have caught on with the Livejournal crowd nearly as well if the marquee song was “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan.” Despite the near six-minute runtime, there’s only about two minutes of actual song to be found in “Evan and Chan,” with two minuets devoted to the wind up and another two to wind down. What’s more, the non-song parts of the song are at times deliberately difficult, as it builds up over a loop of hissing, rhythmic static, and devolves into complete needle-scratching chaos at the end. And even in the parts of the song that are actually anchored by Gibbard’s sharp but dulcet rhapsodizing, the song resists any sort of big hook or chorus, with lyrics of ambiguous meaning that stand in sharp contrast to the shallow obviousness of the duo’s later work. Suffice to say, it’s not a song from which you would assume that an entire album’s worth of similar collabs would go on to be a near-platinum-caliber idea.

But that’s not to say that it isn’t a brilliant, catchy, unforgettable pop song as well. Tamborello was one of the finest architects of the laptop pop genre–songs which maybe sounded like they could’ve been hits if the vision of the 21st century that people had in the 60s and 70s came true, full with synth-leaning hooks, glitch-heavy beats and conspicuously electronic-sounding editing. The best songs from the sub-genre sounded like the perfect marriage between human and computer, with the precision and technology of the latter and the emotional capabilities of the former. “Evan and Chan” doesn’t sound futuristic exactly, but the song’s beat (appropriately enough) crackles with possibility, and when the bass starts to buzz and the distant synth part starts echoing in the back, it sounds like the entirety of pop music is wide open.

The song is weepingly beautiful even before Gibbard enters. As previously stated, Gibbard doesn’t actually do all that much here–two verses and a chorus, except you can’t really call it a chorus since it only appears in the song once. But what he does for “Evan and Chan” is indispensable. The song had already created an almost unbearably bleary-eyed sentimentality, just with the melancholy sound of the synths and bass, and the Death Cab frontman takes the ball and runs with it, relating a story that is most likely of two people falling in love at a concert where one or both might be performing–it’s not exactly straightforward, and Gibbard keeps shifting perspective. But the feeling is vivid–confusing, striking and revelatory–even if the actual meaning is unclear. And it culminates with that not-chorus line: “I won’t let go, I won’t let go / Even if you say so, oh no”–possibly the dawn of Postal Service mawk, but an effective, emotionally grabbing cornerstone lyric nonetheless.

The song keeps on this mysterious path until the final line, where things become at least a little clearer: “And it was perfect / Until the telephone started ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing off…” The brutal awakening of the last line reminds of what the song is titled in the first place–alas, the dream is over. But it makes the rest of the song make so much more sense, as the lack of clear perspective, the sudden bursts of action, the lapses in time and the general haziness are all incredibly emblematic of a dream to begin with–a state where heavy, heavy emotion can seep through without necessarily being explicable, but often feeling more real and more moving than any real-world situation. It’s sort of a devastating finale, and Tamborello gets the most out of it, echoing Gibbard’s “ringing, ringing, ringing, ringing off…” hook more and more faintly until it is eventually entirely smothered by the song’s white noise, a memory and feeling fading into nothingness. If you’re not feeling anything at this point, well…maybe the future of the past isn’t for you.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard of a new laptop pop record making real waves, though I suppose that Dirty Projectors album probably falls into the lineage somewhere. One could probably blame the genre’s fading on the Postal Service, both for over-exposing the genre, and then for failing to cash in on it. They were going to be the band to bring the bleeps and bloops to the emo masses, but they were also that rare lightning-in-a-bottle outfit that left well enough too alone, never getting around to following up Give Up, as Death Cab for Cutie continued to boom in popularity thanks to signing to a major and being featured on a number of TV shows (most prominently The O.C., whose breakout character Seth was a vocal proponent), and dNTEL did some work for Bright Eyes and waited six years to release a follow-up (the heartbreakingly shitty Dumb Luck, which I think might’ve been the last album I ever properly reviewed for Stylus).

Maybe it was all just a fluke to begin with. I still love this song and its parent album, in any event, and am extremely thankful for all it made possible. And hey, if someone wants to let me know about the new Mum or Lali Puna album, I’m all ears. Is that Notwist follow up to Neon Golden any good?

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far:

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia”
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)”
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly”
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar”
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)”
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious”
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space”
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below”
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)”
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor”
90. Cassie – “Me & U”
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater”
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’”
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood”
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over”
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent”
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It”
81. 311 – “Amber”
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite”
79. Nas – “Made You Look”
78. Royksopp – “Eple”
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha”
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)”
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet”
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz”
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes”
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle”
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps”
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot”
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone”
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!”
67. Incubus – “Stellar”
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard”
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie”
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure”
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite”
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get”
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity”
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan”

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4 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #59. “Until the Telephone Started Ringing…””

  1. Garret said

    “the less attractive member of dNTEL”… you meant to say The Postal Service, correct? Correct.

    And this song still totally does it for me. Also makes whatever you’re doing seem important when you turn the volume up.

  2. Doug said

    RE: the Notwist record from last year – though popular opinion seems to be against me, yes, it is pretty good. Nowhere near as good as Neon Golden but certainly not on the level of Dumb Luck.

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