Death Cab for Cutie are in a pretty comfortable position right now. They are the Princess and the Pea, sitting atop a giant pile of soft fluffy down mattresses named Built to Spill, U2, The Cure, and Elliott Smith. They don't even feel the hard cold pea of selling out, because the lines have become so blurred between the sheets and the bed that everything just feels cozy and warm.
I've thoroughly lived and loved through so many waves of punk, post-punk, indie rock and alt-whatever that at this point I just dig backwards in time to find anything worth listening to. I dismissed Death Cab for their first few albums as a Built to Spill knock-off, but some friends of mine were playing Transatlanticism at a party recently and I was grabbed. Then Claire and her friends were singing along to it on Six Feet Under, and I was smitten. All of a sudden I felt like a moony 16-year-old and I relished that feeling, so I got my friend to burn me a copy of that one and I went out and bought Plans.
After listening to Plans for about a week, Death Cab came to town and I decided to plunk down the coin and check them out. I was in the Warfield getting the same feeling I got when I saw Nirvana at the Warfield so many years ago -- that this would definitely be the last time they played a place this small. Like Nirvana before them, Death Cab are able to distill the past ten years of independent music into a winning formula, add it to their awe-shucks regular guy-ism and turn the whole thing into one big, moving arena rock spectacle complete with an audience that knows all the words and 'tween girls chaperoned by their bemused parents. It was a perfect cross between a sweaty club gig and a U2 concert, and it was fascinating. I had a good time, but when they mechanically kicked their amps over at the end of the set, I was reminded again of Nirvana's Saturday Night Live appearance that made me squirm with the lack of motivation behind such a predictable act. (Forgive me for the journalistic laziness of dropping Nirvana's name three times, since I hate to propagate their already over-inflated position in rock history, but in this case it actually applies.) Fortunately for Death Cab, bandleader Ben Gibbard doesn't seem to have any pre-existing drug problems to hinder their rise to superstardom.
Plans virtually drips with adolescent longing, college freshman philosophy and the fear of death, which are basically the three things that shaped me as a person, so I can dig it. I was a goth, I was a drama major, I was a hopeless romantic breaking hearts from coast to coast, so when Gibbard sings "We'd left our love in our summer skin" or "Who's gonna watch you die?" I can relate. Once a teenage girl, always a teenage girl. And the acoustic ditty "I'll Follow You Into the Dark" proves that Gibbard is a first class songwriter, able to hold the listener in the delicate tremble of his voice, as proven by the hundreds singing along at the show. The album production is deep and shimmering, with their trademark rhythmic interplay complimented by washy harmonic guitars, spooky pianos and vintage keyboards. The tunes are so simple and majestic, the singing so plaintive, and the packaging so dreary that it really makes me wanna burn some incense and cry over a lost love. When you're happily married with a little kid running around, this feeling doesn't come around too often, so you gotta relish it. Call me a masochist, but I love that old sensation of a sinking pit in the middle of my chest!
Death Cab are offering a Cliff's Notes version of indie rock and romantic longing, conveniently packaged in CD form. Take one, and we can all sleep a little more comfortably knowing they've got it under control.