Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Key to Unlocking Death Cab for Cutie

I've been watching Death Cab for Cutie on Soundstage. I was about to write a different post about the band, and then they began performing a song that completely changed my opinion of them.

I like Death Cab. I've seen them live here in town. I own one of their albums and would probably own more if I could just remember to buy them. They do the kind of songs that you always like when you hear them, but you never get crazy passionate about them. With one exception, I've never thought to myself, "boy, I've just gotta play that Death Cab song over and over again until it seeps into my bones."

I like several of their songs. Soul Meets Body. The New Year. The Sound of Settling. Crooked Teeth or whatever that song is called. I love their lyrics. They do a lot of great stuff. But their songs are always - again, with only one exception that I know of - a bit antiseptic, a bit distant. Ben Gibbard never screams. The guitars never wail. The drummer never goes wild and starts flailing like Keith Moon. They are a very literate, very restrained band of great precision. They don't rock out so much as they perform songs in the rock style, if you get my meaning.

I will say this, though - what an odd band to watch live. Most bands ramp up their energy for the live show. Their soft songs become a little more passionate, the harder songs get edgier. The guitars get louder. Not Death Cab. If anything, they get less edgy at their live show. They look awkward on stage. Ben Gibbard shakes his head back and forth in front of the microphone like he's trying to convince himself he has rhythm. Chris Walla bounces back and forth between keys and guitar, playing both without fanfare or showiness. He is an exacting artist. He does what is needed. At one point, they showed him sitting at the keyboard, cracking his knuckles, wating nervously for his part to begin. The drummer (Jason McGerr - I had to look it up) looks like he's teaching a class sometimes.

The bass player (Nick Harmer - had to look that up, too) is the only guy who looks like he plays in a rock band. Granted, he looks like he belongs in Journey circa 1984, but at least he's rocking out.

So I was watching the band, surfing the internet, halfway paying attention, thinking that this was one of the least dynamic performances I had ever seen. And then they started playing that song that I've made reference to several times. The song is a tidal wave called "I Will Possess Your Heart."

I love this song with an absolute fiery passion. It's terrifying, dark, and doesn't sound very much like anything they've done in the past. As soon as those first rumbling bass notes hit, you know that you're in a different world. The long version of this song - over eight minutes long - starts with three minutes of churning, driving instrumental music, during which the band locks into an enormous groove. It's their own type of groove, not the kind that a hard-rock band like Pearl Jam would unleash. There's some feedback, but it's whispering feedback, not roaring or screeching. The instruments are all precise, par usual, but this time, they're a little obsessively precise. The same piano melody plays over and over, nervously, as though it's trying to find something different every time. The sound of the bass guitar is huge. The drums are louder, and even though he's not doing much dramatically, he's playing his heart out. The entire sound is the sound of an obsessive going over the edge.

And then the lyrics start. In the album version, and on the Soundstage version, the music drops out almost completely when the vocals begin, and it's a stunning effect. Just a few seconds of nothing but Ben's voice, speaking the first words - "how I wish you could see the potential, the potential of you and me..." It gives you shivers.

And then the beat comes back in, and we're off galloping along with the lead character's crazy obsession, charging toward disaster, locked in that maniacally precise groove. It is the best thing this band has ever put to record, because it's so unlike them.

If Death Cab came out with some squealing guitar jam or some distortion-soaked freakout music, people wouldn't recognize them. This song is so great because it contains all the parts of the essential band - great musicianship, an eye toward perfection, carefully written and enunciated lyrics - turned up to the max. The precision turned to obsession, the enunciation turned into a crazy person shaking you by the lapels and whispering "you must listen to me, because what I have to say is very very important!" It is as if the band discovered another version of themselves, the funhouse mirror version.

Something happened to the band while they played this song. Ben Gibbard started shaking his head around, as though trying to break a spell, and sweat began to form on his brow. The guys seemed to lock into each other for the first time in the show, really following each other intently. And the music was stronger, because it was looser, edgier. They did the full instrumental lead-in for the song, and they tore into it with genuine fury. It's not a song that can be played gently, because there's so much fury in the music and so much underlying rage in the lyrics. It's an angry and a desperate song that has to be played all the way or not at all, the same way that I have to either turn up the radio when the song comes on or turn it off.

After that song, it was a different show. There was some feedback deployed. They got a little looser, a little bouncier. Ben's voice got a little louder and shakier. He sonded less constrained. They used some odd samples on the last song. Suddenly, the band seemed less like a dissertation and more like a rock band, playing for the joy of performing together on a stage.

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