Review: Death Cab for Cutie, Magik*Magik Orchestra at Disney Hall
Singer Ben Gibbard steeled himself for the reviews of Monday’s Death Cab for Cutie show at Disney Hall before the set was even over. “Hey, Chris,” he said, turning to his bandmate Chris Walla. “Now that we’re on tour with the Magik*Magik Orchestra, I’m waiting to pick up the paper tomorrow and read that someone called us ‘Baroque pop.’ ”
Well, if Gibbard still buys newspapers, he can take comfort knowing that his collaborative set with the San Francisco chamber group was more early Romantic than Baroque. The quip, however, implied that the Seattle indie rock quartet has hit a stride where it’s self-aware about its talents and how it’s seen in today’s dicey rock firmament. But Gibbard and his bandmates are musically restless enough to want to upend the indie-sweetheart clichés that follow them, and Monday’s set was a worthy, often-successful stab at broadening the group’s range.
The first challenge in collaborating with a chamber music group was one of scale. Death Cab’s strong suit is evocative lyrical detail that, when put to Gibbard’s lovely melodic sense, makes compelling miniatures out of relationship angst. But a veteran rock band hiring an orchestra is the first sign of grandiose impulses -- and what would a full string section add to songs about car paperwork (“Title & Registration”) or unsatisfying Silver Lake hookups (“Tiny Vessels”)?
Sometimes, a lot. The band recorded its latest album, “Codes and Keys,” with the chamber group, and the songs from that album felt natural when played live. The title track had a Motown string swoon baked into its arrangements, and the song felt elegant and purposeful at Disney Hall. The band’s been taking some cues from experimental German groups such as Can lately, and noisier tracks such as “Different Names for the Same Thing” let the orchestra saw and shriek to even bigger payoffs.
The match worked for the band’s very early, less fully arranged material as well. Death Cab stripped down dreamy and minimalist guitar pop such as “Little Fury Bugs” and “Bend to Squares” (both fan favorites from the band’s pre-"O.C." fame) to reveal the songs’ bare bones. Then, the bandmates rebuilt the drunk-lonely vibes with restrained strings while keeping the forthright storytelling up front.
The experiment didn’t work as well on tracks from their career-shift middle period, when they broke nationally with the 2003 album “Transatlanticism” and 2005’s “Plans” and began toying with new production styles and dynamics. There was just no room in the busy piano arpeggios of “What Sarah Said” for eight new players to feel essential, and it overfilled a song whose stark, devotional lyrics such as “Love is watching someone die” should hit like a gut punch. And as is the case at many of these rock-orchestral shows at Disney, the drums and bass often bludgeoned the strings out of the live mix. For the riff-heavy single “You Are a Tourist,” any new shades got lost in rock thrashing.
Death Cab’s very long set (two dozen songs, close to two hours) probably could have done without the four-song acoustic interlude and not suffered for it, especially now that the band has an encore that fans know to wait for. Gibbard’s bedside folk ode, “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark,” is one of the group’s best known songs, and it showed just how little arranging or orchestras he needed to win a room (especially with the un-mentioned subtext of his recent split from actress Zooey Deschanel).
But when he brought everyone back to close the show with the long-crescendoing piano burn of “Transatlanticism,” the song’s ocean-spanning sentiment warranted all the extra musical drama they could shoehorn in. Death Cab is highly resistant to cliché, but at that moment, the decision to call in an orchestra to help Gibbard say, “I need you so much closer,” felt entirely justified.
-- August Brown
Photo: Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie performs with Magik*Magik Orchestra at the Beacon Theatre on April 27, 2012, in New York City. Credit: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images.