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DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE
Codes and Keys
Atlantic / Warner Music Group
Format: CD / LP / Digital
Release Date: May 31, 2011
By Steve McPherson July 15, 2011

If you’re a listener who’s never paid much attention to Death Cab For Cutie but decide to pop in Code and Keys to see what the fuss is about, you’ll likely find nothing broken about it. The crystalline production of post-Plans (Atlantic, 2005) Death Cab is intact, Ben Gibbard’s vocals sound (emphasis on sound – more on that in a moment) appropriately wide-eyed and just a little sad, and the songs tend to fall into melodic, hooky grooves (“You Are a Tourist”) or textural, minimalist grooves (“Doors Unlocked and Open”).

But if you’re a holdover fan of the band’s earlier records – say, We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes (Barsuk, 2000) through Transatlanticism (Barsuk, 2003) – prepare your frowny face: this is not a return to the salad days. It’s no mystery what made them well-liked and critically acclaimed in their early days: the combination of surface-level catchiness and Gibbard’s often labyrinthine narrative voice that pushed metaphors to breaking in an attempt to codify and preserve that most everyday of occurrences, heartbreak.

On the musical side, a tune like “You Are a Tourist” holds a lot of promise. A wash of piano and backwards guitar dissipates to admit a buoyant bass line and boom-clack drums moving in lockstep. When the guitar riff slides in, sounding more 1980s new wave than 1990s indie rock, it recalls the more anthemic turn Modest Mouse took on Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic, 2004). So far, so good, but then: “When there’s a burning in your heart / an endless yearning in your heart / build it bigger than the sun / let it grow, let it grow.”

Seriously, Ben? This from the guy who, in “Expo ‘86,” brilliantly likened relationships to a slide we keep climbing and riding even though it keeps burning our skin at the bottom? The guy who wrote “Talking how the group had begun to splinter / and I can taste your lipstick on the filter” for “Title Track”? You could always accuse Gibbard of overreaching with his metaphors, of overplaying the sentimentality card. But at least he was goddamned trying.

Elsewhere, “Unobstructed Views” is a snooze, with Gibbard waiting a full three minutes before coming in from the wings to hum some more claptrap about doubt and love. “Portable Television” boasts the strongest sense of story – previously one of Death Cab’s greatest strengths – but why is Gibbard singing it like it’s a 1920s musical number? For a time, Death Cab’s restlessness served them well, pushing their sound away from lo-fi and towards the widescreen, cinematic sweep of Transatlanticism and Plans. But the experimentation here feels like tinkering, the textures like wallpaper.

It’s not all bad: “Home Is a Fire” and the title track are good enough, their subtlety and incremental build effective, if workmanlike. “St. Peter’s Cathedral” boasts a strong sense of atmosphere and packs at least a little bit of punch in its untroubled denial of a reward in the afterlife. But that tune’s relative incisiveness only makes the rest of it more milquetoast. Surely there’s a massive audience for anodyne tunes destined to soundtrack the season finales of network dramedies*, and it may as well be Death Cab for Cutie cashing those checks. Better them than Owl City, I guess.

* You can read all about it on the Amazon page for Codes and Keys, where positive reviews damn the album with faint praise like “very solid/consistent,” “whimsical lyrics,” “adult-alternative radio-friendly,” and “a well-rounded piece of work.”

Visit: Death Cab For Cutie | Atlantic
Purchase: Insound | eMusic