CD Review of Plans by Death Cab for Cutie
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Death Cab for Cutie:

Reviewed by David Medsker


ne wonders if the members of Death Cab for Cutie had any idea what the two years after the release of their magnificent 2003 album Transatlanticism would hold in store for them. They surely knew that they had just made their best album yet, but did they know that the Postal Service, lead singer Ben Gibbard’s techno pop side project, would actually get more airplay than Gibbard’s day job? More importantly, did they know that a wisecracking geek from Newport Beach was about to make them a household name?

Yes, the Seth Cohen Factor has to be considered when analyzing the mainstream’s acceptance of Death Cab, whether the band wants to admit it or not. Before they were repeatedly name-checked on “The O.C.,” Death Cab were a well kept secret, who got the occasional video (“A Movie Script Ending,” from 2001’s The Photo Album) slipped into rotation on MTV2. Post-Cohen, they were the “it” band, with songs getting shoehorned left and right into this soundtrack and that trailer. To raise the stakes even higher, the band jumped from indie label Barsuk to Atlantic (though Barsuk is releasing the new album on vinyl). Indie band, major label, great expectations. Does Death Cab live up to it?

Well, yeah, sort of. Plans, the band’s new album, is perfectly pleasant, and chock full of the razor sharp lyrical observations that only Gibbard seems to be capable of making these days. It also sounds expensive, as if guitarist/keyboardist/producer Chris Walla lost himself in all the new gear they had at their disposal. Lastly, it sounds, well, sedated, as if the band forgot that what made Transatlanticism so moving was the way it changed gears so effectively. Plans is more like variations on a theme than shifts in tempo. It’s certainly not hard on the ears, but it doesn’t really nail the landing the way Transatlanticism did.

Not only is the album not hard on the ears, it’s actually soft on the ears. Leadoff track “Marching Bands in Manhattan” begins with a church-like organ, and two of the next three songs begin with piano as well. There is also an abundance of acoustic guitar, from lead single “Soul Meets Body” to “I Will Follow You into the Dark.” In fact, it sounds more like Elliott Smith than Death Cab, and while there is nothing wrong with sounding like Elliott Smith, it’s not the reason why anyone listens to Death Cab.

The first moment where the band really gets their groove on is in “Different Names for the Same Thing,” a piano-drenched ballad that takes off at the halfway point courtesy of some frenetic drumming from Jason McGerr. “Crooked Teeth” is another good one (they highlighted it at Lollapalooza), a bouncy, near-power-pop tune with yet another trademark Gibbard lyric (“You’re so cute when you’re slurring your speech, but they’re closing the bar, and they want us to leave”). The only other up-tempo song of note is “Someday You Will Be Loved,” a rewrite of “House of the Rising Sun” though obviously sans the soulful Eric Burdon-style vocal, which Gibbard frankly couldn’t do if his life depended on it.

The problem with Plans is that there aren’t enough moments like these; previously, they’d deliver a crippling line like “I’m waiting for something to go wrong” with a raucous rhythm track, and the two disparate modes would complement each other beautifully. This time around, the melancholy is met with more melancholy, and while this isn’t entirely new for Death Cab, the absence of nervous energy is noticeable, and unfortunate.

The beauty of the band’s position is that no matter what happens with Plans, it will be considered a success. After all, the band may be well liked by fans and critics alike, but they don’t have a single gold record to their names. That will certainly change here, and while it’s very encouraging to see bands like Death Cab for Cutie storm the charts, it would be nicer if they did so with an album that showed off the band’s talents the way that Transatlanticism did.

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