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.
Thirteen 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.
Old school fans will also appreciate the fast, 16th-notes and practically punk-ish bass playing by Harmer on “Doors Unlocked And Open,” one of the few guitar-based numbers on Codes And Keys (even if it ends with a fuzzy synth), with the others being the excellent and danceable pop rocker “Underneath The Sycamore” and the aforementioned lead single.
That said, Death Cab does come up short on ace material in some places. “Home Is A Fire,” the full-length’s lead-off track, has a lot of effects-laden elements to it and sophisticated beats, but ultimately doesn’t contain any magical moments. The same can be said for the full band (w/piano) track “Portable Television.”
Elsewhere, Gibbard may sing on “Some Boys” that “some boys are singing the blues” and “don’t know how to love,” but these boys could’ve done without the synthetic heavy-breathing effect that appears throughout an otherwise solid track that starts with big-sounding piano strikes and gets joined late by the typical light and melodic Death Cab guitar strums. And “St. Peter’s Cathedral” is a well-produced cut but is a bit too repetitive lyrically and requires some patience as a listener, as all the electronic and other elements take their sweet time coming into your speakers or headphones.
The title track is a sort of sad, minor-keyed and somber pop ditty, complete with a rare string section. It’s one of those songs that actually gets better with each listen. The same can be said for the album as a whole.
In sum, Codes And Keys doesn’t rank up with its best works (which are We Have The Facts… and Transatlanticism, IMHO) but like all its other releases that fall short of classic status, it has more repeat-worthy material than not and therefore is worth owning for any committed fan of this one-of-a-kind band.
Death Cab For Cutie is currently on a worldwide tour. Catch up with the group via its official website, and watch a performance of fan favorite “Title & Registration” from VH1 Storytellers that aired near the end of May.
Photo credit: Danny Clinch