Death Cab for Cutie with Magik*Magik Orchestra
Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Fox Theater, Oakland
Better than: Your prom and your fifteen-year high school reunion, if they happened at the same time
Last night's Death Cab for Cutie concert, the first of a three-night stand at the Fox in Oakland, started on time. (I am imagining as I type this how rewarding it would be to one day review an entire concert, Brahms or Zola Jesus or whoever, with just the sentence "This concert started on time." Why am I telling you this? I'm stalling, obviously. Let's start over.) This concert started on time; it had assigned seats, which cost $40 to $50; it had ushers with flashlights standing by to guide guests to said seats. A gentleman sitting behind me wore a bow tie with no irony whatsoever.
Most tellingly, Death Cab for Cutie played with a nine-piece orchestra (conductor included). The whole thing was so resolutely not-punk that it felt, by turns, desirable to remember that Death Cab for Cutie were once vaguely punk -- or if not punk, at least edgy in this articulate and restless way that was the closest a certain kind of indoor kid ever got to being punk -- and uncomfortable to wonder whether the same brand of pomp and grandiosity awaits opener Youth Lagoon at the other end of an objectively successful decade-plus career.
Youth Lagoon, which tours as a duo (mainstay Trevor Powers on keyboards, plus his friend Logan on guitar), spent roughly forty minutes incarnating songs from the group's only release so far, The Year of Hibernation. I say "incarnating" because the songs on that album, which is very likely my favorite album of last year, are estranged in a peculiarly affecting way: they are buried under enough layers of fuzz that, for all their emotional resonance, it's hard to pinpoint a human behind them. (A friend who also spent much of last winter listening to Hibernation assumed for at least a month that Powers was a woman.) In the live setting, where some notes linger a little more and some tones hammer a little harder, there's a satisfying though not especially surprising feeling of peeling back a layer of gauze to find that you've been listening to a flannel-wearing, slightly hunched young man rather than a civil war nurse.
Powers' voice, which is mixed to a low warble on record, is weapons-grade in person: it's scratchy and pained even as it soars; it's naked, in the best way. The tracking underneath the vocals comes alive too, if only because you can hear it just a touch more clearly and distinguish new patterns and melodies therein. It's actually a little spooky how latent the hooks in Youth Lagoon songs are, how you-just-have-to-get-to-know-her-better. It's hard to make out Powers' lyrics; the rhythm track is impeccable but never quite intricate enough to call attention to itself; the songs' heartbeat never comes from anywhere visible. But you pay the smallest bit of attention at the right moment, and you find that they are coolly, calmly, understatedly fucking devastating. Live, uncovered even by just one layer, one Photoshop filter-undo, they snare that much harder.
And this is, if you like, a convenient segue into what was unsatisfying about Death Cab for Cutie's smooth and consummately professional 24-song set: where Youth Lagoon stripped away a layer of abstraction, Ben Gibbard and company were a layer farther away. I'm prepared to blame this on the orchestra -- not through any fault of the orchestra's own, but for the very choice of having one, of replacing the most raw and emotive textures in the band's catalog with the sound of rose petals scattered underfoot. (My only beef with the actual orchestra, San Francisco's own Magik*Magik Orchestra, is that they made me type an asterisk just now.) You can hate on Gibbard all you want, and with reasonably good cause -- his annoying enunciations, the weird pigeon-toed jig he does, the way he's cleaned up from overliterate indie-rock schlub to dapper gent who leans on his microphone stand like an Abercrcombie model and was briefly married to Zooey Deschanel -- but Death Cab for Cutie are a talented band. They're just not, by and large, the kind of band whose talent is improved by their having an orchestra at their disposal. (Notable exceptions: "What Sarah Said," "Transatlanticism," and in a strange way "Bend to Squares.")
There's the rub, though. My instinct was to ask what reason Death Cab for Cutie could possibly have to go on tour with an orchestra, but there I was surrounded by living, breathing, well-dressed reasons. After all, there's nothing stupid about this band (aside from the occasional lyrical excess, like pretty much all of "Soul Meets Body"); if you do the math, none of what I've described above constitutes Death Cab turning its back on its strengths -- it's all Death Cab playing to what its strengths are in the eyes of those beholders who chose to pay $50 to see the band in an auditorium with ushers. And in the midst of all those beholders, most of who had pretty obviously come to hear "Soul Meets Body" above all, I was left with an altogether trickier question than why: why not? Why shouldn't Death Cab go on tour with an orchestra if the world is willing to bankroll it? Why shouldn't it take risks and make indulgences when given the chance? What business is it of mine if the band doesn't choose to manifest having grown up in the same way I do? (Nobody's offering me an orchestra, last I checked.)