Death Cab For Cutie

Expectations can put you down.
Having failed to get into the three sold out Brixton and Electric Ballroom concerts Death Cab for Cutie played in London, I have been waiting impatiently for this night at the cosy Koko.

A week past, I cannot solve my very personal enigma about this show.
I love Death Cab For Cutie, it was my first time I saw them live, I love Koko and I can’t complain about a setlist that spanned their entire career.
However this concert never took off to land on my emotions, I am here striving to come out with a convincing explanation.

Before going into the gig review, let me show you my view on Death Cab amazing growth using a parallel perspective borrowed from another American band.
If you pay no attention to the music for a while, it is possible to see a close comparison between Death Cab for Cutie and R.E.M.

I discovered DCFC remarkable first albums retrospectively. Transatlanticism, their fourth, got me into this band.
In a similar manner, several years before, I stumbled upon R.E.M. when Document was released. I think it was their fifth, and I got to know their earlier LPs looking back in time.

Transatlanticism is my favourite Death Cab album. With a new drummer and an improved contribution of the full band to Gibbard songwriting, I see a genuine move towards a sense of group which was missing in the beginning. They don’t sound anymore as a Ben Gibbard “solo project” with support musicians.
Songs after songs Transatlanticism discloses an enviable maturity. On top of that I love the way they insist on a tenacious indie attitude. Up to this CD all DCFC releases were published by the small Seattle label Barsuk.

On a fantasy journey back in time that crosses United States from North-West to South-East, we arrive in Atlanta when R.E.M. are recording their “indie” masterpiece: Document.
Not accidentally it is their last LP with I.R.S. before being signed by a major: Warner.

Transatlanticism was strongly received, the rumours about a band curiously named Death Cab for Cutie spread beyond colleges much quicker than radio airings and, as happened to R.E.M., they were quickly signed to a major: Atlantic.

Atlantic marketing machine immediately worked at full steam. Plans, their first album with them, climbed the USA album chart up to an impressive top five.
Plans is (almost) as good as Transatlanticism but the latter didn’t do better than a Billboard #97, the power of a label.

Sing-along as Soul Meets Body and an intimate ballad as I Will Follow You Into The Dark are instant classics.
The richer production is clearly listenable but the band “indie-ness” is still there as well as, most important, the strength of their songwriting. They haven’t been overpowered by a big cheque. Good news.

Carrying on my comparison, Plans is for DCFC what Green was for R.E.M. So true that, likewise, Green got a major production turning towards a radio-friendly pop sound. It scored #12 on Billboard.

You see where I am going.
Last May, Death Cab for Cutie new album, Narrow Stairs, went straight to Billboard number one on the week of its release.
In the same way the second R.E.M. album for Warner, Out of Time, was a Billboard number one.

Both projects have been launched to the top by the heritage of their brilliant precursors and, most important, with the help of a perfect single.
Losing My Religion for Stipe and Buck; I Will Possess Your Heart for Gibbard and Walla.

Past I Will Possess Your Heart, Narrow Stairs, is not as good as its precursor.
The album suffers, as Out of Time, of too much comfort.
Security and wellbeing don’t work on alternative rock bands. I mean musically, I am sure the guys are quite happy to cash big bucks.

I don’t despair, though. Relying on my theory which seems pretentious enough to add a chapter to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, two thousands years late, considering the consequent R.E.M. effort was the stripped down, Automatic For The People, their Warner-era and last masterpiece…erm…no pressure, guys!

Back to the concert and thanks to (a music website named after one of DCFC early songs) I got into Koko’s night.

i-tunes is sponsoring this London festival for the second time.
More than a sponsor it is a marketing operation. Any concert is recorded and sold through the Apple digital store.
More than a festival it is a competition. No tickets on sale, to get in people must register and win an online lottery.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons of the adverse night.
It’s not totally accurate to blame the audience for a poor concert, but having in front of you half of the people chatting, photographing, messaging, videoing and queuing at the bar while you play your best songs it is not the motivational environment of your dreams, even for the most confident artist on earth.

It was disappointing to see how a cosy show that you’d want to be experienced by the fans was, in the end, attended by internet surfers who tried to win any of the 31 gigs and finish up to gain entry to the only one they were not interested.

That’s the only answer I have to explain why even a gem as Transatlanticism closing the night is not welcome any different from some colourless tunes.

Ben Gibbard contact lenses (?) make some people murmur it’s not him on stage. I was close enough to recognise he was indeed there; the problem was his voice, flat and lost somewhere.

Chris Walla on the contrary is the mind behind the project. Not surprisingly he is at the production of the band albums.
His guitar makes the difference, the balance of arpeggios and feedback acts as a switch, turning on and off the songs. The long instrumental intro on I Will Possess Your Heart is destined to be a live classic where they can enjoy endless improvisations.

Tonight the rhythm section is all on bassist hands. Nick Harmer’s four strings are energetic and bouncing and he has a fruitful interaction with Walla.
On the other hand the march-like drumming kindly offered by Jason McGerr, often appears cyclic and redundant.

Certainly Death Cab for Cutie strength is in the sophisticate songs. They have some of the best tunes of the decade; you can cherry pick any of their albums and find some clever writing.
What they missed tonight was the capacity to transfer that magic on stage.

Like bringing a beautiful car to an exhibition not paying attention to polish it. You perceive there is some fantastic music to listen to, but it isn’t as shiny as it can be.

A missed occasion, so unexpected that instead of leaving me disappointed, left me in need of more. I will definitely give DCFC live a second chance, hopefully when they’ll be touring their Automatic For The People. Definitely I will book a proper gig to see them together with their proper fans.

In the meanwhile keep listening to their music, here’s their [myspace] [website]

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Photo tip

It was a difficult one and it wasn’t easy to guess. Until the band began, curtains were hiding the stage. Being my first DCFC show I didn’t have a clue how they stand on stage.

My error becomes a suggestion.
Before going to photograph a gig always google for images of the band you are shooting. You learn a lot in terms of bands layout: their arrangement on stage, the number of members, the instruments likely to be used. Pay a particular attention to the position on stage (front or back), the use of monitors and whether the singer is hidden behind the microphone pole.

When the curtains disclosed the Koko stage, it was disappointing to see how far they stood one from each other and everyone from the front.
Gibbard on the extreme left, Walla on the right behind a keyboards and the bass/drum pair central but well on the back.
Koko’s stage isn’t huge, but it was impossible to get a band frame which doesn’t look dispersive. I opted for some close ups using my 135mm lens but lights weren’t strong enough.

If you are going to photograph Death Cab for Cutie, be ready for a demanding one!

~ by Valerio on July 20, 2008.

6 Responses to “Death Cab For Cutie”

  1. Sorry, mate. Doesn’t sound like a good night at all. Quite disappoiting actually. Anyways, hope you’ll be more lucky next time.

  2. Impressive photos – Black and white suits the band, gives a sense of an atmospheric presence that, judging from your review, was somewhat lacking.

    I have to say, I’ve seen them on better form back in 2006. They lacked the energy and vigour displayed back then, and it’s always a disappointment when they don’t play We Looked Like Giants with Ben on a second set of drums. Indulgent, yes, but genius also.

    I was also somewhat dismayed with the Birmingham audience, there was very little interaction.

    Oh well, they continue to be one of best lyrical bands around. Thank you for pointing me in the direction of your photos. :)

  3. having in front of you half of the people chatting, photographing, messaging, videoing and queuing at the bar

    It’s more and more so, Vale. Remember MV?

  4. I Do remember Mars Volta, but that wasn’t anywhere close to this believe me.

    I think is to blame the fact that it was a free gig and people attending weren’t really people who care that much, however it was very annoying.
    Worrying is that a friend told me Brixton a couple of days later was similar. I would blame television, we are used to doing anything else while something is on in front of us.
    Difference is that a performance is not behind a monitor, real people are on stage. (When) you pay for it, you should enjoy otherwise a beer on the pub next door is cheaper, isn’t it?

  5. I’m so sorry about the disappointed. But do give them another chance live. The first time I saw Death Cab, was, oddly enough, two years ago when they played the Brixton Academy during the summer. Up to that point, it was the best show I had ever been to. The Brixton Academy’s sound system is just amazing. They sounded perfect, and Gibbard was on his best. However, his performances are always shaky. I have had a number of friends tell me they will never see Death Cab again because of his uncontrollable voice live. It’s always a toss-up when seeing that band.

    On the other side of the spectrum is Chris Walla. Who, as you hinted at, is always at his best. He’s a musical genius and definitely has progressed and developed Death Cab’s sound to where it is today. I’m not saying I’m a fan of this sound, as their earlier albums were my favorite, but the sound they have today is much more commercial.

    Nice photographs and keep up the excellent work, I’ll be an active reader from here on out.

  6. Fantastic photos – and I love Trans too. Thanks for passing by my blog :)

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