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April 23, 2004

Death Cab: first time's the charm

Death Cab for Cutie are on Barsuk Records, an independent record label that has a little dog as its logo. Their music is catchy, and they would certainly not sound out of place on top 40 radio. What we're tiptoeing around here is that DCFC could certainly be on a major label if they were so inclined. This raises the question: Why would they choose to release their records on a tiny independent label, wallowing in obscurity, forced to eat Burger King six nights a week? It also raises the question of why they would choose to have their music appear on the television show The O.C. After a lot of thinking—a lot—we've come up with the answer: fashion advice. No, wait. Not fashion advice—girls.

The songs gracing the episodes of The O.C. are by bands that include such heralded indie-rock luminaries as Death Cab for Cutie, Spoon, and Modest Mouse. Phantom Planet even claims the theme song. Well, I can say that I have only watched a snippet, say 30 minutes, of The O.C. This was enough to note that all the actors looked well into their late twenties, noticeably airbrushed in whatever way to look like they were in blooming high school adolescence—and accordingly accessorized, including the latest Marc Jacobs bag or Prada polo. The marriage of the indie rock scene with the more mainstream—i.e. buy our minivan and eat our French fries because we listen to hip and cool music—is a trend that reaches an apex with this aforementioned television show.

But I'll let you hipsters debate the state of music over the smoke of your cigarettes. All I know is that from where I was standing at the Death Cab for Cutie shows last week, frontman Ben Gibbard resembles that guy Seth from The O.C., whom I remembered from my little fragment of television watching. Now, it's one thing to include your music on the show, but quite another to model yourself after one of its characters.

Okay, so maybe it's not intentional—but I have heard both guys described as "awkward." Indeed, the way Gibbard danced, swaying from foot to foot, reminded me of a wind-up monkey in slow-motion, especially when he drummed during "Title and Registration." At the end of the April 15 show, he came back out to acknowledge the audience with an excruciatingly gawky curtsy. But enough about "dorky" comparisons. Some of Gibbard's songs on the band's latest album, Transatlanticism, make up for the few other lacking songs. Unfortunately, some of the best songs on the album were not played on either of the two days that DCFC performed at the Vic.

The double-headliner show last Thursday began with Ben Kweller's set (I missed opening band Willy Mason). I think there's nothing more to say than that he sounded like an affected and squeaky version of Mark Ruffalo. Kweller catered to the rather youngish crowd of Chicago high school students by telling them, "I'm a Gemini!" There was stage banter piddle about a whiffle ball game between DCFC and Kweller's group. In short, Kweller was annoying, as were his fans, which unfortunately tainted the quality of the Death Cab sets.

DCFC totally upstaged Kweller with a cover of his own song, "Wasted and Ready," making it their own stylistically, despite the horrible lyrics that only a douche could pen. Undoubtedly, the atmosphere of the crowd affected the performers, which was especially apparent at the next show.

The Death Cab set on Thursday was a much better performance than Friday's, although many of their renditions sounded exactly the same as on their recordings. This resulted in a good, but not spectacular, show. They started out with "The New Year," the first track on Transatlanticism, and then soon retreated to their old albums, with the next two songs taken from The Photo Album. They played a couple other old songs—it was appeasing to hear "Photobooth," with its electronic drum machine intro. Death Cab played the entirety of Transatlanticism, except for three songs, including the acoustic and piano numbers "A Lack of Color" and "Passenger Seat," respectively. While these were missed, the real hole in the set was the exclusion of "Death of an Interior Decorator," a personal favorite, and in my opinion the best song on the album. I had my hopes up that they would play it on Friday.

I hurried to the show on Friday afternoon because Death Cab was playing first this time (after the hairy, Christian singer-songwriter Pedro the Lion). DCFC started the evening with "Title Track" from We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, which I thought was a good omen. But I was soon proved wrong.

Throughout the rest of the set, there was a noticeable lack of energy in Gibbard's vocals. His words intermittently kept fading out. It was most noticeable on "President of What?," a Something About Airplanes song which is one of Death Cab's more heated songs. Not even the barbaric dancing of Nick Harmer—contrasted with Gibbard's robotic swaying—could make up for the lack of excitement in the vocals. I kept thinking that they would get it together for the last song and play "Interior Decorator," but the lackluster set carried on until it was Ben Kweller's turn.

While Death Cab's songwriting and music has the ability to be charming and urbane, they did not deliver on the performance that would get them the girls. Leave that to Ben Kweller.