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Music Review: Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys

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Bellingham, Washington’s indie-turned-mainstream rockers Death Cab For Cutie is a band with nothing left to prove. It made great records right from the get-go that the indie rock and college crowds ate up. It all started with the raw and desolate rock of 1998′s Something About Airplanes, but its profile truly rose with the next three records (on the Barsuk label), beginning with the dark but often summery rock of 2000′s We Have The Facts… record (which is when this reviewer became a fan for life), 2001′s The Photo Album and the nearly perfect and well-produced 2003 CD Transatlanticism.

There were some grumblings about DCFC’s move to major label Atlantic Records two years later, and 2005′s Plans was a bit of a step down from previous records. But, it contained the group’s most popular hits to date, “Soul Meets Body” and the folkier hit “I Will Follow You Into The Dark.”

The 2008 follow-up Narrow Stairs was a much more rounded and in some places, exotic record that contained dark, personal lyrics (according to singer Ben Gibbard) and starred “Cath,” one of the best and most pure, guitar-centered tracks in the band’s career. And not that number one records mean that much anymore, but the band proved it could top the Billboard charts and did just that with Narrow Stairs.

Death Cab For CutieThirteen years after record number one comes Codes And Keys, Death Cab’s seventh and third for Atlantic. According to guitarist/back-up vocalist and well sought out producer Chris Walla, he, Gibbard and the band aimed to make this a more keyboard-centric record and less guitar-based one than anything they’ve ever recorded, and listed influences such as Brian Eno, New Order and David Bowie for this new direction.

Using recording software program Logic Pro, the band strives to create a new sound for itself by using a mix of modern and vintage-sounding technology. In some places, however, the new record does not truly abandon the guitar-bass-drums (and sometimes piano) attack it’s always had.

First single “You Are A Tourist” is easily the best song on the record, and it also happens to contain the most playful, ringing electric guitar riffs on it. More than that, it features bassist Nick Harmer and guitarist Walla leaving their respective main instruments (temporarily) during parts of the song to play light synth and keyboard parts, while Gibbard loops live vocal parts on one mic to start and plays them back when not singing the main lyrics on another mic or playing his guitar.

With seven albums now in the vaults, Death Cab does not have any big leap to make in terms of songwriting, performance and production quality, as it has already topped itself time and time again. And on “Tourist,” it doesn’t need to do this kind of multi-tasking but chooses to do so because everyone in that band knows that the best and most legendary acts always find ways to grow as musicians. “You Are A Tourist” clearly shows the band is doing just that. The group also successfully took on a challenge to have a director film the (pretty cool) video for the track and simultaneously broadcast it online for everyone to see a few weeks ago.

The runner-up to “Tourist” is “Unobstructed Views,” a track co-written by Gibbard and Walla. The Brian Eno influence is perhaps apparent on this spacious, calming and mostly instrumental piece that also has the slight aura of the dreamy, instrumental aspects of Transatlanticism’s “We Looked Like Giants.” The best part though is when the soft, harmonized voices come into play over two-thirds of the way through, taking the six-minute-long track to its apex. It’s an outstanding and masterfully produced piece of work.

About Charlie Doherty

Copy editor/content writer for Penn Multimedia; print/web journalist/freelancer, formerly for Boston Examiner, EMSI, Demand Media, Brookline TAB, Suite 101 and Helium.com; co-head sports editor & asst. music editor at Blogcritics Magazine; Media Nation independent newspaper staff writer, printed/published by the Boston Globe at 2004 DNC (Boston, MA). See me on twitter.com/chucko33, myspace.com/charlied, & Facebook.