OK, I get it now.
For more than a decade, the appeal of Death Cab for Cutie has eluded me, despite the vociferous endorsements of friends, respected colleagues and even TV characters. But the Bellingham, Wash., quartet proved last Saturday night at KFMA's "Unsilent Night" to have the pop-rock smarts and robust live energy that warrant acclaim.
Downtown was jam-packed for an unusual confluence of events--a parade, a hockey game, plays, concerts and movies--that left me in my car on gridlocked streets for a good 40 minutes. The result was that I completely missed the evening's opening act, The Airborne Toxic Event.
But I caught Cold War Kids, whose rousing take on sharp-edged indie rock included elements of jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley and even a little ragtime. Singer Nathan Willett used his dramatic, high-pitched bark to good effect, cutting through the unfortunate acoustics in the football-field-size concrete hall, which otherwise did not serve the music well. The mostly young crowd of budding hipsters seemed mostly uninterested, but they responded enthusiastically to the recent single "Something Is Not Right With Me."
Death Cab then played a little more than an hour of convincing rock 'n' roll, effectively refuting my prejudices against the band. In the past, I've focused too much on songs that sound a tad fey on recordings. Likewise, I was until now uncomfortable with lead singer and songwriter Ben Gibbard's schoolboy yelp, which to these ears rarely varies in tone.
In concert, however, the band was a muscular unit without sacrificing Gibbard's sensitive side, juggling an encouraging assortment of pop-rock inspirations--from the Zombies to the Posies, from the Velvet Underground to Sonic Youth, and from Happy Mondays to Coldplay. Through early gems such as "President of What?," pivotal hits such as "Soul Meets Body" and "Crooked Teeth," and recent numbers such as the dramatic "I Will Possess Your Heart," Death Cab built a furious storm of rough-and-tumble noise. Thank the brawny rhythm section and the skills of guitarist Chris Walla, a master of the perfectly placed riff, for this blessing.