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Monday, May 30, 2011

Death Cab for Cutie: Codes and Keys (Release Date: 5-31-2011)

        Most bands, indie bands especially, don't have a shelf life of Thirteen years and Seven albums. By that time, side projects, reduced ambition, and the ever-changing music scene have done away with just about every group. Who could have guessed that Death Cab for Cutie would be the last man standing? Musician after musician saw their career rust with time, and yet Ben Gibbard and the boys are still here, and they're still just as polarizing a force as always. On one hand, only a real snob wouldn't admit that the band has at least a dozen real winning tunes, but then again, only the oblivious have resisted the temptation to roll their eyes at Gibbard's angsty/sad-sack delivery and ever wobbling voice. Despite having been here all along, Death Cab is one of those rare bands who seems to have something to prove on each new record that they make, and Codes and Keys is no exception.

        The band's first single off of the album, You Are a Tourist, seemed to boldly point in a new direction. Between the echoing vocals, upbeat pacing, and playful, whistle-ready guitar part, the band hadn't sounded so sunny and catchy since Sound of Settling, but that song was only a morsel. Tourist is a more expensive number, bringing in new instruments and turning up the heat on the backside of the song's nearly Five minute runtime. It was a sign of good things to come, and if album opener Home is a Fire doesn't quite live up to the smile-cracking, stuck-in-your-head pop mastery of Tourist, it nonetheless shows a group interested in expanding their boundaries. Once again set at a speedy clip, Fire is a mellow tune that rushes through itself, seemingly intended more as an introduction to the album's sonic world than a real attention-grabber. In the song, we hear the subtle changes that will be reflected all through-out Codes and Keys: The suddenly caffinated tempo, Gibbard's new-found willingness the alter his voice, and a light sprinkling of electronic sounds.

        These changes prove both evident and inspired time and time again, Some Boys cashing in on all of them, turning your standard, 'boys-are-stupid-and-insensative-accept-for-me,' lyrics into something really catchy and fun. As with the best songs in the Death Cab catalogue, Boys is a builder, starting only with Gibbard's voice, skittering symbol taps, and a throbbing bass, evolving into a swirling, multi-colored break-down in just over Three minutes. Follow-up Doors Unlocked and Open is a bigger stretch still: The song builds on a bassy/badass guitar and drums foot-race, neglecting to even invite Gibbard to the party until a Minute and a half has passed. Even when he arrives, his voice is auto-tuned into something nearly indecipherable, the mysterious, ghostly quality of it matching perfectly with the subtle but spit-fire instrumentation. The song never really comes to climax, but it doesn't need to: It's a zippy and dirty tune with moments that wouldn't be wholly out of place on an LCD Soundsystem disc. Death Cab looks good in their new clothes.

        As good as it is at times, Codes and Keys isn't quite a song-by-song triumph. The second half of the album sees them reverting to many of their more familiar, less exciting attributes. Underneath the Sycamore is just the kind of song that gives Death Cab detractors their gas: Overly-emotional for no apparent reason, predictable at every turn, and with Gibbard's voice and words precious at every moment. It's surely the album's lowest point, but to call the Six minute plus, black-tears instrumental number Unobstructed Views a whole lot more than passable might be stretching it. Same goes for both Monday Morning and Portable Television, which are in the spirit of Codes and Keys other bold, game-changing tracks, but somehow lack their fire and ingenuity. Even still, I only count one song on an Eleven track disc that's anywhere near below average. This time out, even when they sound familiar, as on the violin-led swooner of a title track Codes and Keys, they manage to come off as inspired.

        It takes all the way up to the penultimate track for You Are a Tourist to be challenged for the mantle of, 'Codes and Key's best song,' but there's no mistaking a rousing finale like St. Peter's Cathedral when you hear it. After a whole record of hearing Gibbard's over-earnestness being wisely kept in check through the use of auto-tune and other machines, hearing his natural croon, only one repeating electronic sound as a backing, is suddenly as affecting as it was when we were all first introduced to it. But it's not alone for long, and soon Gibbard's role is reduced to waywardly repeating, "There's nothing passed this," over and over again as the tune's electro-pulse picks up, gaining speed and charging straight into a surprisingly gritty (if still not all that gritty) electric guitar finish. Having already shown off their pyrotechnics, the band scales back for its final ditty, Stay Young, Go Dancing, the shortest and most light-hearted number on the disc, full of ridiculously gushing sentiment and lyrics designed exclusively to pry the, 'aww,' out of their listeners.

        But like almost the entirely of Codes and Keys, it works because it's delivered by a band in the most advanced stage of pop music craft, one with enough vitality and energy, after all these years, to introduce new sounds and textures to their music, all while paying attention to album flow and pristine production. I never thought I'd forgive Gibbard for taking Zooey away from me, but here I am, singing the praises of him and his band once again. Codes and Keys is a Death Cab for Cutie album, let there be no doubt, but it's also a deliberate and clearly conscious effort to focus in on their better attributes, all while minimizing their less flattering ones. Frankly, for a band that has been both lauded and trashed as much as these guys have over the years, it's a pretty inspiring effort. I didn't expect to be saying this any more than you anticipated reading it, but from where I sit, Codes and Keys is one of the best albums of the year, and you don't even need to be crying one single tear in order to think so.

Grade: B+

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