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Death Cab For Cutie – Codes And Keys

Death Cab for Cutie are an American Indie Rock band who also experiment with electronica, who have released seven studio albums, including this latest offering ‚Codes And Keys‘ (2011). Previous releases ‚Transatlanticism (2003)‘ and ‚Plans‘ (2005) are critically acclaimed examples of the band’s work.  Chris Walla (guitar, production, keyboards), Nick Harmer (bass) and Jason McGerr are adept musically, and they are completed and fronted by singer, guitarist and piano player Ben Gibbard. The band have become very inspirational in the Indie rock scene in recent years. Gibbard’s lamentable vocal; his sometimes biting, always thoughtful lyrics underpin the band’s dynamic approach to song writing. Gibbard is also part of electronica band ‘Postal Service‘, something he started whilst with Death Cab. They have managed to appear still very ‚personal‘ to the listener on previous releases, despite their growing fame, due to the lyrical approach and accessible musical style; however the criticism that they have became too ‚commercial‘ began with ‚Plans‘ in 2005, and this tag has never really left the band since. Previous release ‚Narrow Stairs‘ (2008) was a steady, well-produced album; it was all extremely shiny musically, yet it did sound rather disconnected in general. It was not received well critically and left a question mark. On ‚Codes And Keys‘, have Death Cab rediscovered their knack for writing catchy pop/Indie/electronica and ensured that, whilst the production may be equally shiny, the lyrics that accompany this follow the excellent approach of the past? Have they shrugged off the criticism of ‚Narrow Stairs‘ from 3 years ago?

Not entirely. This is a real hit and miss record. In any case, Gibbard seems to open the record with a forewarning. ‚Plates they will shift … houses will shake… nothing’s the same…‘ on ‚Home Is A Fire‘. The track grows from a fast high-hat pattern to introduce a heavy, melodic and forceful baseline, whilst the guitars create the sprawling soundscapes for the piano and lyrics. It’s an interesting opener with some nice crisp production, the only criticism in that it seems over before it’s began.

Title track ‚Codes And Keys‘ hammers itself home with a loud drum pattern, and some natural sounding piano, and it does sound very joyous. Again, this is offset by Gibbard singing over this: ‚…we won’t get far flying in circles inside a jar, cos the air we breathe, is thinning with the words that we speak. You’re on the floor, fearful of what’s outside your door, but the codes and keys they can’t protect you from the pangs of jealousy‘.

Throughout this track there are wonderful strings, used so subtly in the mix that it just adds to the unsettling atmosphere. The refrain of ‚we are alive‘, which soars at the end of the track, really just poses the question – yes – we are alive; but how positive is this if we’re experiencing the image he paints lyrically?

After this strong, melodically arresting opening, track ‚Some Boys‘ really falls flat. It has a breathing or panting vocal effect used continuously, and seems to be lyrically concerned with some ‚boys sleeping‘ or ‚some boys don’t know how to love‚. It is instantly forgettable, and sounds like Death Cab filler. After this disappointment, ‚Doors Unlocked And Open‘ is over 5:30 long, and again doesn’t really go anywhere. It packs a punch with the drums and has a simple bass and guitar line running through, while Gibbard chirps in with a distorted vocal: ‚isolation. Dotted lines… blurred to one..always moving…blinding sun‚. Again, the track washes over you, with nothing to really grab onto. It’s another poor track, until ‚You Are A Tourist‘ comes along and rescues things somewhat. This track is strong, concerned with ‚not being alarmed when there’s a burning in your heart‘. The drums, bass and guitar lines work very well here, and there’s an absolute defined guitar hook to bite into:

In ‚You Are A Tourist‘, we get the fist real glimpse of the lyrical skill from Gibbard, with the fantastic example of what he’s all about:

‚If you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born then it’s time to go…you can find a destination with so many different places to call home. When your find yourself a villain in the story you have written its plain to see, that sometimes the best intentions are in need of redemption, would you agree?‘

Gibbard is always at his best when he poses lyrics that really make you think. In previous album track ‚What Sarah Said‘, from ‚Plans‘, the lyric ‚love is watching someone die / so who’s gonna watch you die?‘ was a real standout moment. With these lyrics on ‚You Are A Tourist‘, he makes a similar strong comment: where, and what is home these days, in our ever-shifting world? What feels like home? What will be home? Also, ‚best intentions‘ are not a currency that can buy you much, these days.

The longest track comes next, ‚Unobstructed Views‘, clocking in at 6:10. It begins sounding very morose, with rambling piano and a steady bass line, then joined by a xylophone sound chiming with the notes. It’s sound is reminiscent of the superb title track on ‚Transatlanticism‘, and it has an equally steady build up. It’s over 3 minutes before we get the first vocals, this time concerned with love being an ‚unobstructed view‘, with no ‚perfect views‚, just ‚our love‘. It lacks the power of their previous ’slow burners‘ from past albums in truth, not sounding nearly as epic. It gives the band an opportunity to build layers of sound, but it lacks impact and intimacy, and washes away again quickly, which is another huge disappointment.

‚Monday Morning‘ comes along, and most of the time, no one likes a Monday Morning. This continues here; the only thing that really does the track justice are some of the lyrics, but there are no real highlights to speak of. The rest of the album also fades away rather lifelessly, but that’s not before track 9, ‚Underneath The Sycamore‘ arrives. It’s the absolute highlight of the album, the sure-fire next single (or should be); it’s instantly catchy, and lyrically interesting: ‚l was such a wretched man, searching everywhere for a homeland. We are the same, we are both safe, underneath the sycamore‘. The vocal melody, and indeed the whole feel of the track sounds incredibly similar to Brandon Flowers flowers efforts from the band ‚The Killers‘, and it’s not apparent how accidental this is. Either way, it’s a bouncy, likeable song with 3:26 of enjoyable music and lyrics, featuring a miniscule swish of strings before the last chorus. The open chords ringing out and the straight drum pattern re-enforce the strength of the track. Simply put: more tracks like this one would have resulted in a better album.

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