Teen angst drives boring Death Cab


October 14, 2005


During a memorable scene from the wildly popular "troubled but pretty rich kids" soap opera "The O.C.," the sensitive, pudding-loving geek Seth (Adam Brody) tries to find solace in the music of his favorite, similarly sensitive band.

"It's like one guitar and a whole lot of complaining," Seth's sometimes girlfriend Summer (Rachel Bilson) notes.

"Hey! Do not insult Death Cab!" sensitive Seth indignantly replies.

But if you ask me, Summer's critique of Death Cab for Cutie was spot on.

Touring in support of the recently released "Plans," its fifth and most successful album to date (thanks, Seth!), the awkwardly named Bellingham, Wash., quartet played a sold-out show Wednesday night at the Riviera Theatre for a crowd of devoted and worshipful fans who demographically mirrored Seth, every sensitive soul among 'em, and who basked in every chiming guitar chord, droning non-melody and tortured-artiste utterance of high-pitched frumpy frontman Ben Gibbard.

Mind you, I have no trouble with teenage angst, and it deserves a cathartic outlet. It's just that I prefer, say, Iggy Pop's expression of it ("I am the world's forgotten boy/The one who searches and destroys") to Gibbard's ("The glove compartment isn't accurately named ... 'Cause behind its door there's nothing to keep my fingers warm").

It is difficult to find catharsis in music so utterly boring, banal and snooze-inducing. The problem isn't that Death Cab's members lack talent; they are all accomplished and sometimes inventive musicians, especially Gibbard and Christopher Walla, who both alternate between guitar and keyboard. The difficulty is that they're hesitant to ever shift from second gear into fourth.

Think of Coldplay without those indelible songs, U2 without the inspirational bombast or the English shoegazer bands of the early '90s without the dark psychedelic edge -- only more sleepy, and with a lot more literary pretension.

Death Cab isn't incapable of delivering a memorable melody -- there were several during the 75-minute set, mostly from the new album, whose arrangements are slightly more direct and upbeat than those on previous discs. ("Plans" is Death Cab for Cutie's "dance" disc, don'tcha know.) But there were far too few hooks along the lines of those in "Marching Bands of Manhattan," Gibbard and his bandmates showed little to no charisma, and despite the size of the venue they offered no visual enhancements, playing in front of a stark white curtain in their nondescript thrift-store duds.

It was as if the group had invited the crowd into their rehearsal space, and perhaps that intimacy is one of the things fans find so appealing. When Gibbard returned to start the group's encore, he delivered a tune alone with his acoustic guitar. "Love of mine, some day you will die/But I'll be close behind/I'll follow you into the dark," he crooned.

The rapt reception made it clear that fans are willing to follow Gibbard anywhere. But it's a shame they've given such devotion to a group that rewards it with so little substance or energy.

Opening the show was a quartet of Death Cab for Cutie clones from Sydney, Australia, called Youth Group. During an overly long 45-minute set, their only twist on the sensitive but sleepy formula was to add a lot more Larry Mullen Jr. rhythmic flash.