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Bigger label gives Death Cab room to grow

Brian Doxtader, Molly Griffin | Thursday, September 8, 2005

Brian: It must be tough to be Death Cab for Cutie. Appearances on “The O.C.” and the runaway success of bandleader Ben Gibbard’s side-project The Postal Service have made Death Cab’s latest, “Plans,” the other hotly-awaited pop/rock release of the year (the first being Coldplay’s latest).

Death Cab never sounded like a band intended for superstardom, so the band’s hesitancy is understandable, but a little disappointing nonetheless. “Plans” is evidence of a band in transition, making the jump almost, nearly seamlessly to the major label but tripping just slightly on the landing. In effect, it is the sound of a band that, for the first time, sounds a little unsure of its direction.

Accordingly, Death Cab’s latest isn’t “Transatlanticism,” (their last album and their best thus far) nor is it The Postal Service’s “Give Up.” Instead, the band tries to progress forward within the confines of its sound, which works in some cases but not in others. It doesn’t have the immediacy of either of the two aforementioned albums, but it does have a warm and inviting sound that suits Gibbard’s starry-eyed romanticism.

If anything, Death Cab sounds more understated than ever, which is apparent from the outset. “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” the opening salvo, is as quietly agreeable as “The New Year” was bombastic on “Transatlanticism.”

Thankfully, the production doesn’t mute everything into obscurity, as the songs delineate themselves quite clearly. This clarity is welcome and even necessary, as there are certainly some fantastic songs on “Plans.” Among the best are the pseudo-epic “Different Names for the Same Thing,” the lovely and understated “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and especially the staggering “What Sarah Said,” undoubtedly the album’s masterpiece.

Like most Death Cab albums (and also, incidentally, symptomatic of U2 albums), “Plans” runs a little too long, and the overall quality starts to dip towards the end.

Gibbard’s lyrics are better, though they still tend toward mawkishness at times and incomprehensibility at others. Gibbard’s dreamy idealism – a heady mixture of universality and oft-bizarre specificity – could be considered embarrassing, but his honest delivery and overall earnestness keep “Plans” afloat. Like Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus, Gibbard is best in sound bytes, as he’s capable of a killer line or two, even when spinning dangerously close to cliché: “I’m a war of head verses heart and it’s always this way / My head is weak and my heart always speaks before I know what it will say,” he sings on “Crooked Teeth,” the most straight-ahead song on the entire album.

Additionally, several tracks take cues from the title track on “Transatlanticism,” in which a single lyrical phrase gets the Philip Glass treatment, to great effect: “Your love is gonna drown,” Gibbard intones repeatedly on “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” while the droning repetitiveness on “Different Names For the Same Thing” is more agreeably melodic than merely ingratiating.

“Plans” is ultimately an album of modest pleasures. There’s nothing as bracingly catchy as “The Sound of Settling,” nor is there a lighter-waving anthem like “Transantlanticism,” but the album holds together as well as anything Death Cab has ever cut. It is the sound of a band in transition, and while the transition sounds interesting and pleasant, it’s not quite the bold leap forward that might’ve been hoped for. Death Cab For Cutie has always been a good band and “Transatlanticism” indicated that they might be a great band. “Plans” isn’t quite the fulfillment of that promise, but it’s a solid set of songs that will appeal to long-time fans and new listeners alike.

Molly: The independent music scene is a difficult place for bands, and sometimes when you succeed, you fail. Small bands usually accumulate fans on their way up, and some of the luckier groups must decide if they want to stay true to their roots and remain independent or sell out and sign with a bigger record label.

The album “Plans” marks this crossroad for the band Death Cab for Cutie. They stand on the brink of commercial success with their new album, but they are also leaving the small label and the small underground scene where they were first embraced. The album is the group’s first departure from the Seattle-based label Barsuk Records and their first album for the much larger Atlantic Records.

Death Cab, from a small college town in Washington State, gained a loyal following over the course of five albums and little commercial success. This all changed with the release of 2003’s “Transatlanticism,” which found a more mainstream audience.

The fact that the television show “The O.C.” embraced the band and mentioned them constantly introduced the group to a new, wider audience. The band performed on “The O.C.” during the second season and songs like “Lack of Color” were featured during prominent and emotional scenes on the show.

Ben Gibbard’s role as part of the emo/techno blend The Postal Service and the success of their album, “Give Up,” also created a greater awareness of Death Cab for Cutie in the musical community. The group’s song “Such Great Heights,” was covered by Iron and Wine for the soundtrack to the film “Garden State.”

While the band’s image and direction are changing, the songs on “Plans” are still up to the caliber of the bands prior albums. The band continues to stay true to its emo roots with contemplative lyrics about love, death and the afterlife. The tone of the album is more upbeat than some of the band’s other efforts, and the songs sound much more polished and put together, which speaks to the experience of the band.

The stand-out track on “Plans” is “I Will Follow You into the Dark,” a simple but potent ballad about love that transcends the boundaries of life. There are images of heaven, hell, nuns and lyrics like, “If there’s no one beside you when you when your soul embarks / I will follow you into the dark.” The powerful effect of singer Ben Gibbard’s boyish voice coupled with the lone guitar on the track makes it simple but immensely powerful.

Other great songs on the album include “Marching Bands of Manhattan,” a warm, soaring song about trying to live in the moment and not being entirely successful. “Different Names for the Same Thing,” a piano-driven song that is about traveling in a foreign country and being frustrated by the language barrier is another song that sticks in your head.

“Brothers on a Hotel Bed” is notable because it originated from Chris Walla, which is the first song the band has ever had the came from someone other than lead singer Gibbard, and it deals with the themes of love and growing older.

Death Cab is known for its dark and sometimes depressing lyrics as well as arrangements. Their latest album still has lyrics that will bring tears to your eyes, but the arrangements are filled out and give the album a greater sense of warmth and of hope and revealing the band’s new maturity.

“Plans” is ultimately a meditation on dealing with aging and about the potential that love can die at any time. The band’s audience is growing and expanding to include a more diverse fan base. If they continue to achieve the same musical and emotional quality that “Plans” manages to reach, they will not only find success with their loyal fans, but with people who appreciate good music everywhere.