It's taken Seattle's Death Cab for Cutie only three years to claim its seat alongside Superchunk as an industry leader in the "diary rock" market. In that intimate niche, delicate vocals pack a surprisingly powerful punch, and electric guitars embellish the proffered secrets with tightly wound, chiming precision. Death Cab's latest, The Photo Album,
is diary rock's wintry masterwork; half of the songs use the short days and long nights of those dark months as their backdrop. Whether singer Ben Gibbard is bundling himself against the coming chill (as an ex-lover prepares to leave town in "Blacking Out the Friction") or sifting through bitter holiday memories of a neglectful father ("Styrofoam Plates"), the songs radiate like pockets of warmth in an otherwise frosty season. Chris Walla's gorgeous guitar leads are carefully rationed; the complementary keyboard and piano parts are doled out with a similar, expertly light touch. For a band still in the early stages of its career, Death Cab has orchestrated a remarkable coup.