EmptyVenue: Nokia Theater, Los Angeles (Monday, June 23)
Death Cab for Cutie doesn't "rawk" in a tear-it-up fashion, though it tries. It's just that the Seattle band is at its best gliding along with finely textured, cerebral nice-guys-from-the-heart songs, which was just what fans wanted Monday at the Nokia Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
Once a darling of indie rock, Death Cab has stepped up into the big leagues in recent years, especially with its current release on Atlantic, "Narrow Stairs," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart. The group didn't completely fill the venue, but it came close, with many couples out for a date night to start the week.
There was a standing-room-only pit in front of the stage, but it was all about head bobbing and hand-holding rather than shake it up. For the most part, Death Cab is a friendly ride even while immersed in bittersweet romantic melancholy.
Although the band has a distinct sound, it lacks a distinct personality -- and that's the problem. Singer-guitarist Ben Gibbard has a plaintive tenor of near-innocence that was often buried in the group's thick sonic styling led by guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla. Bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr whipped up shifting rhythms and an occasional backbeat, but it all almost came off as free-form, with little grounding.
Mixing new material with old, the songs were hit-and-miss, including the second-string U2 atmosphere of "Bixby Canyon Bridge," the ringing "The New Year" and the much more linear and livelier "Long Division."
It was only when Gibbard traded electric for acoustic guitar that the band revealed its heart and soul with a trio of its most recent hits, smartly reworked for the stage: a scaled-down "Soul Meets Body"; the Gibbard solo for a folkish "I Will Follow You Into the Dark"; and the group's slow-build epic confessional "I Will Possess Your Heart."
The main set should've ended right there, followed by a compact encore, but the group continued on and lost momentum. Despite that widening fan base, the band can't sustain a show much beyond an hour.
There's no doubt this is an earnest, gimmick-free band when it comes to songwriting and performing. But if it truly wants to continue for the long haul, Death Cab needs to shift gears more often, or it'll be stuck in dull neutral.
The night's opener was Rogue Wave from the Bay Area.