Live review: Death Cab for Cutie at the El Rey Theatre
Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie didn’t take long Tuesday night to address the elephant in the room.
A decade ago, this Seattle-bred frontman -- one of indie rock’s most visible -- offered up a brutal takedown of Los Angeles in a song called “Why You’d Want to Live Here.” Singing sweetly over a tolling fuzz-pop groove, Gibbard described L.A.’s smell (“an airport runway”) and sights (“billboards reach[ing] past the tallest buildings”) before concluding in a final couplet, “You can’t swim in a town this shallow / Because you will most assuredly drown tomorrow.”
The song, like all Death Cab for Cutie songs, seems rooted in the personal; you get the impression that the narrator is venting about his ex as much as where she ended up after their breakup. In 2001, though, “Why You’d Want to Live Here” also affirmed the band’s commitment to certain indie-rock ideals regarding stardom and ambition.
“I can almost see a skyline through a thickening shroud of egos,” Gibbard sang, lifting himself above a rat race Death Cab hadn’t yet been invited to enter.
Ten years later, the singer-guitarist and his bandmates are very nearly winning that race: “Codes and Keys,” the group’s strong, surprisingly sunny new Atlantic Records release, debuts this week at No. 3 on Billboard’s sales tally, right behind Lady Gaga and Adele. And today Gibbard is himself an Angeleno, having moved south following his marriage in 2009 to singer-actress Zooey Deschanel.
“Life is sweet in the belly of the beast,” he admits in the new album’s closer, “Stay Young, Go Dancing”; it’s a folky waltz whose title tells you all you need to know about the frontman’s fresh outlook.
Headlining the relatively intimate El Rey Theatre for the first time in what Gibbard reckoned was nine years, Death Cab for Cutie played “Why You’d Want to Live Here” early in Tuesday’s set, as if to establish that the band’s success hadn’t softened its keep-it-real resolve. But when the song was over, Gibbard told the capacity crowd, “I answered my own question, folks.” Here was a flannel-clad man-child owning up to maturity -- or, at least, perhaps to the occasional sight of Mrs. Gibbard’s face on those skyline-blocking billboards.
Much of the remainder of the two-hour concert demonstrated how well adulthood suits this band. Death Cab sounded forceful and propulsive in songs from “Codes and Keys,” such as the hurtling “Doors Unlocked and Open” and “Underneath the Sycamore,” which bassist Nick Harmer gave an unexpected hint of funk. For several tunes, including the album’s handsome title track, Gibbard or guitarist Chris Walla switched to piano, drawing out the music’s similarity to mid-period R.E.M.
Material from the group’s two other major-label releases shared the new songs’ appealing muscularity; “Soul Meets Body,” its breakthrough single, rode a crisp beat that redeemed the song’s dopey New Age lyric.
Death Cab for Cutie had more trouble at the El Rey with its older songs, which felt cluttered and ungainly. “Company Calls” and “Company Calls Epilogue,” both from 2000, were especially lumpy, their introverted melancholy far less convincing than the guarded optimism of Gibbard’s recent work.
One exception was “The Sound of Settling,” the zippy 2003 cut with which the band ended its main set.
On Death Cab’s “Transatlanticism” album, the song ponders the implications of opportunities left unexploited: “I’ll sit and wonder of every love that could’ve been,” Gibbard sings. On Tuesday, though, he sounded like a man who’d followed through and found equilibrium to his liking.
-- Mikael Wood
Photo: Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times