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October 16, 2003

Northwest's finest demonstrate that second time is a charm

"Comfort music"—what does this phrase mean to you? Indulge me, for a minute, while I tell a little story. During my first year at this school, I had this friend from San Francisco who was so scene that she had seen Fugazi play basement shows in D.C. One day, she happened to stop by my room and drop off a pile of CDs that she thought I needed to hear. There was a European import of Björk's jazz record. There was De Stijl from the then little-known White Stripes. And then there was this record called Something About Airplanes by some band called Death Cab for Cutie. I tried to get into it but found it too plodding, too uninteresting for my impatient tastes.

Well, somehow this same friend managed to drag me to a Death Cab show at the Metro. The boys had just released The Photo Album and were then making the rounds, promoting the new record. Having not liked the record that I had heard, my expectations were fairly low. But something magical happened when Death Cab took the stage that night. The songs exploded with energy. The lyrics were clever yet bittersweet. And Ben Gibbard's endearingly boyish voice soared majestically above it all.

I took The Photo Album home with me that night. I was hooked. Every night for two weeks I would run the ridiculously long cord of my earphones across the room, from my stereo to my bed, so that I could fall asleep listening to The Photo Album. In those days, the University was a forbidding place, full of 8:30 a.m. first-year chemistry lectures, an alien gender known as "girls," and libraries that looked more like fortresses. But somehow, it was all made OK by the simple fact that The Photo Album would always be there, waiting for me at home, to serenade me to sleep.

It's been a good year for people like me. No less than five Death Cab-related releases have come out this year: an album and two singles from Ben Gibbard side-project The Postal Service, Gibbard's split EP with The American Analog Set frontman Andrew Kenny, and now the newly released Transatlanticism. This fine city has seen a lot of the boys as well; not only was there a Postal Service show in the spring, but also Gibbard's solo acoustic set at Schubas in August (which was no less than amazing, by the way). But not since the Death and Dismemberment tour two years ago have we been treated to a show by Death Cab proper. Thus, it was with much anticipation that the faithful awaited the band's two-night residency at the Metro this past weekend.

Unfortunately, our patience was not duly rewarded. Despite an excellent set list that married the finest moments of Something About Airplanes with the band's newest material (and included a Björk cover to boot), Death Cab failed to impress on Friday night. During their disappointingly short set they played passionlessly, lethargically, and sloppily. What had happened to the Death Cab who changed my life only two years prior? Had the demanding Northwestern indie-pop lifestyle finally caught up with them? Had they, after years of touring, finally run out of steam?

Luckily, the answer to all of these questions proved to be a resounding "no." After a set from local My Bloody Valentine devotees Pinebender (and I mean that as a compliment), Death Cab took the stage again on Saturday night, starting with "Title Track" from 2000's brilliantly titled We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes. The band wisely decided to open the set with some of their strongest material, bouncing through the deliciously poppy "Movie Script Ending" in a way that made pixie sticks seem bitter-tasting. "Why You'd Want to Live Here" slowly built to its climax, with Gibbard yelling, "I might explode!" as if he were convinced it was true. Slowly, new material began to work its way into the set, as "Title and Registration" found Gibbard pounding out supplemental percussion on electronic drum pads as he sang. Nearly every song on Transatlanticism has some sort of electronic embellishment, a surprise coming from a band who has, in the past, referred to themselves as "militantly analog." Regardless, the electronics are, for the most part, unobtrusive and do little to detract from the band's brilliant pop songwriting.

In fact, Transatlanticism is all about change. Opening number "The New Year" bursts and blooms like it was written with an arena in mind. On record, it sounds like a song that should've been written by a less talented group of songwriters. However, live, the song took on a life of its own, every chord landing with the weight of a load of bricks. This was followed up with "Photobooth," one of the band's finest and, until recently, most infrequently-performed songs. Over the rhythmic ticking of a drum machine, Gibbard sang "And as the summer's ending/The cold air will brush your hard heart away/You were so condescending/As the alcohol drained the days."

As the set began to wind down, we were treated to a cover of the The Secret Stars' "Wait," a rare gem from the band's early "Prove My Hypotheses" single. The set closed with what are arguably Transatlanticism's two strongest songs. "Tiny Vessels," perhaps the darkest Death Cab for Cutie song to date, featured lullingly typical verses that led into a crunch of minor chords, with Gibbard spouting surprisingly callous lines like "I wanted to believe in all the words that I was speaking as we moved together in the dark."

The night's finale found Gibbard behind an electric piano for "Transatlanticism," a delicately beautiful ode to a lover across the sea. Over washes of clean guitar and a slowly building piano line, we were led through the creation of the ocean: "I was standing on the surface of a perforated sphere when the water filled every hole." The piano gradually became more forceful, the rhythm section more deliberate, as Gibbard repeatedly lamented, "I need you so much closer/I need you so much closer." By the song's finale, the drums and bass had reached a deafening level of intensity, the vocals pleading, "So come on/Come on." And then, the song collapsed into its self and washed away. After a brief encore of the fan favorite "405," the band disappeared into the backstage darkness, returning whence they came.

Despite an inexplicably disappointing Friday show, Death Cab for Cutie managed to leave their audience in awe on Saturday night, reminding me, yet again, why they hold such a special place in my heart. That night I slept well, knowing that once again all was right with the world.

sang "And as the summer's ending/The cold air will brush your hard heart away/You were so condescending/As the alcohol drained the days."

As the set began to wind down, we were treated to a cover of the The Secret Stars' "Wait," a rare gem from the band's early "Prove My Hypotheses" single. The set closed with what are arguably Transatlanticism's two strongest songs. "Tiny Vessels," perhaps the darkest Death Cab for Cutie song to date, featured lullingly typical verses that led into a crunch of minor chords, with Gibbard spouting surprisingly callous lines like "I wanted to believe in all the words that I was speaking as we moved together in the dark."

The night's finale found Gibbard behind an electric piano for "Transatlanticism," a delicately beautiful ode to a lover across the sea. Over washes of clean guitar and a slowly building piano line, we were led through the creation of the ocean: "I was standing on the surface of a perforated sphere when the water filled every hole." The piano gradually became more forceful, the rhythm section more deliberate, as Gibbard repeatedly lamented, "I need you so much closer/I need you so much closer." By the song's finale, the drums and bass had reached a deafening level of intensity, the vocals pleading, "So come on/Come on." And then, the song collapsed into its self and washed away. After a brief encore of the fan favorite "405," the band disappeared into the backstage darkness, returning from whence they came.

Despite an inexplicably disappointing Friday show, Death Cab for Cutie managed to leave their audience in awe on Saturday night, reminding me, yet again, why they hold such a special place in my heart. That night I slept well, knowing that once again all was right with the world.