There's a ghost that haunts the margins of Ben Gibbard's solo debut, "Former Lives." It's not his ex-wife Zooey Deschanel, from whom Gibbard recently split after two years of marriage. It's another singer-songwriter with indie-scene roots who became a major star, ended up in L.A. and confronted some substance-abuse demons: Elliott Smith.
Gibbard recorded "Former Lives" in Eagle Rock with Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza, one of Smith's friends and collaborators. The influence is subtle, but it's easy to hear their shared affection for the Beatles in the jangle and washy harmonies on "Dream Song," and in the solo-McCartney stoner sweetness of "Duncan, Where Have You Gone?" Gibbard's songwriting holds up in the gently varied sonic settings here — Sunday-morning folk on "Lily;" a breakup-with-booze Aimee Mann collaboration "Bigger Than Love" — though nothing feels as immediate as his day job in Death Cab for Cutie. But as a smart singer-songwriter staring down his vices in L.A.'s endless golden hours, he's in good company.
Two and a half stars