Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

Rating: ★★★ · ·

I feel like I’ve been waiting for Death Cab For Cutie to step up to the plate and produce a record that blows me away for the longest time. It seems as though they have produced some really grand songs, but have not necessarily excelled at making a cohesive album that strikes listeners with hit after hit, at least not for a long while. On Codes and Keys, it’s not a total wash, but it certainly does not fit the gripping and fantastic album that I’d hoped for.

While it is disappointing that this band did not miraculously intensify from their last release, it is still comforting to know that they know how to craft some good songs. If it’s any consolation to those long time fans of Death Cab, there isn’t much drastically different on this album. You have the bleak yet ever enticing vocals of Ben Gibbard, which serves as the distinctive quality for this band. The album starts with “Home Is a Fire,” on which you’d think that they’d begin with one of those knockouts, but instead you get a slow, crawling start, as if the band is reemerging from the depths of the three years since their last release. However, it comes across as a bit of a boring song for those who are fairly educated and familiar with the band’s sound.

Things don’t really get going until you reach “You Are a Tourist.” It’s classic Death Cab from the start: loops of Gibbard’s vocals echoing in the background, pragmatic and dignified drums and the semi-serene, on the verge of edgy, guitar. As I mentioned earlier, there is no doubt that this band knows how to make a killer pop song, and it is proven on this song, as well as later on “Monday Morning.” This track divulges the tale of a muse that Gibbard admires and then marvels at the simple events by which he met this darling female. It’s little gems like these songs that make me hold onto this band.

There are other tracks as good as these, some that are throwaways, and others that lie somewhere in the middle, leaving it up to you to make the decision whether they linger in your listening catalog. Such is the tradeoff of having a front man with such a distinctive vocal quality: it allows for some numbers to run together, or sound akin to another track that the band has already produced.

I don’t think that Codes and Keys is by any means a step back from their last record, but by no means is it a step up. Death Cab For Cutie seems to be fairly content with this ratio of excellent songs to mediocre, and if that ratio is cool with you, then listen away. After more than a decade it’s impressive that I am still drawn to their subtle indie-pop, which is a feat in itself.

Stars – The Five Ghosts

Rating: ★★★ · ·

Toronto band Stars has spent years crafting albums full of emotion, politics and love.  It’s now 2010, and the band have switched labels for The Five Ghosts, perhaps signaling a change in the band’s mentality, or at the very least, their dynamic sound.  Signing to long-running emo label Vagrant may not have been a bad idea in regards to exposure, but would such exposure exist on the merit of the music alone?

“Dead Hearts” oddly begins with the feel of a melodic Death Cab for Cutie song, with the guitar barely trickling beneath the alternating vocals of Torq Campbell and Amy Millan.  It’s a pleasant enough number, and one that newcomers to the band will surely enjoy, but it seems as the album begins to take flight that the group is already taking a rest.  “Wasted” similarly seems uninspired, as if Stars opted to craft songs in the vein of friends Metric; the lyrics even bear the mark of Emily Haines.

By the time you encounter “I Died So I Could Haunt You” you’re looking for some sort of extreme contrast.  The sonic barrage apparent on In Our Bedroom After the War (“Take Me to the Riot”) is no more.  Sure, the thick bass line definitely adds a brooding quality, but as the song builds towards an unknown climax, listeners will find themselves a bit unfulfilled.  Really, where are the drums here?  But, perhaps this is the direction the band has chosen to head, so we shouldn’t knock them for treading new ground, that is until you arrive at “We Don’t Want Your Body.”  Frankly, it’s a bit of a juvenile number, and where you want to find a bit of passion, you only get a little coy vocal from Millan.  Oddly, none of it really seems too bad, but at this point, it all seems bad in comparison to other works by the group.

Luckily for the band, Amy Millan is just incredible.  Lack of inspiration never seems to hold her back, as witnessed in “Changes.”  She practically carries the song all on her own, with, as usual on The Five Ghosts, very minimal instrumentation shining through.  You have to give her credit in the end, as her light definitely has a bit of shine to it, while the rest of this album seemingly fades into banality.

Still, there are some bright elements on this record to assure us all that they still have a knack for writing good hooks.  “Passenger” has this catchy little moment during the chorus that appears as part electronic, part vocal, and for whatever reason, it just grabs the listener. On “How Much More” there’s a bit of a ringing guitar to go with another great vocal Millan performance.  Back beats here give a little boost of energy to go along with it all, rounding it out to be one of the better tracks.

Not long ago I would have sworn by Stars, such was the quality of their back catalog, but The Five Ghosts just seems like an anomaly.  It doesn’t seem like a record within the character of the group I’ve gotten (or we’ve) to know for the last ten years or so. It would be wrong to call it uninspired, but you could easily say that this is nowhere near the band’s best work to date.  Hopefully, this is just a brief identity crisis, and one that will bring the band back stronger next go around.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Stars-Wasted-Daylight.mp3]

Download: Stars – Wasted Daylight [MP3]

Gibbard & Farrar @ Antone’s (1/27)

gibbardfarrar

Date 1/27/10
Location Antones
Doors 8pm
Tickets Sold Out

The super duo of Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard and Son Volt leading man Jay Farrar are stopping into town at Antone’s on Wednesday.  The recently formed group are touring in support of their Big Sur inspired colaborative project.  One of our favorite songwriters Will Johnson will also be on hand to open things up.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Ben+Gibbard+and+Jay+Farrar+-+California+Zephyr.mp3]

Download: Ben Gibbard & Jay Farrar – California Zephyr [MP3]

FT50: Albums of the ’00s

0828top5coverWhat?   You still listen to THAT album?  That record is so 2004!  Well, that’s okay, because we really like that one too, which is why we decided to come up with a list of our favorite albums of the last decade (2000-2009).  Sure, these might not be YOUR favorite records, or the most critically acclaimed, but we sat down and really thought out every record from the past ten years that we keep coming back to in our collections.  You’re likely to disagree with some of these, and we won’t tell you we’re absolutely right we just know that these happen to be OUR favorites.  If you think we totally blew it here, feel free to tell us so, but be nice, as our egos are kind of fragile.  Follow the jump for more.

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Death Cab For Cutie @ AMH 5/1

death-cabEveryone’s favorite indie kids Death Cab for Cutie are playing a sold out show at Austin Music Hall on Friday.  The show should be made more enticing to you music fans as ATH favorite Ra Ra Riot will be joining the band on the stage.  Matt Costa will also be playing right before the headliners.  Music starts at 8pm.  Check out craigs list for some tickets buying options.

[audio: http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/deathcabforcutie-littlebribes.mp3]

Download: Death Cab for Cutie – Little Bribes [MP3]

New Tunes from Death Cab for Cutie

deathSomewhere in the history of my adolescence, I adored this band. I’ve watched them change and grow from album to album, always finding something to appreciate. There newest album Narrow Stairs saw them branch further than before, but it also didn’t seem to fulfill Ben Gibbard’s desire for perfect acoustic songs with Death Cab. This number reminds us all why we fell in love with his songwriting, and check the midway mark for a change in the song’s progression. The song is the first track off their new Open Door EP coming out next week digitally.

[audio:http://austintownhall.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/deathcabforcutie-littlebribes.mp3]

Download: Death Cab for Cutie – Little Bribes [MP3]