All photos: Joy Asico
PLAYBOY MAGAZINE (March 1966): Do you think you have a purpose and a mission?
BOB DYLAN: Henry Miller said it: The role of an artist is to inoculate the world with disillusionment.
When I heard that Ben Gibbard got engaged to Zooey Deschanel several years ago, my thought was, “Well, fuck that guy!” My second thought was, “This is going to ruin his career.” Gibbard’s songs exude disillusionment. This was the man who penned “You seem so out of context in this gaudy apartment complex / a stranger with your door key explaining that I am just visiting.” Supporting Gibbard means accepting his hyper-romantic self-pity. A Death Cab hater considers “I Will Possess Your Heart” a clumsy threat; a fan sees it a passionate guarantee.
My fear turned out to be right. After getting engaged, Gibbard’s melancholies were eradicated. He stopped drinking. His pot-belly and signature spectacles were reduced by marathon training and contact lenses. In 2011, Death Cab released Codes and Keys, the most optimistic album of their career. It’s coincidentally their worst album.
But a man should not be mired in misery forever. With a decade of success in the bag, the quartet hired San Francisco’s Magik*Magik Orchestra as support for this tour, augmenting their tunes with strings. The addition of a string section can elevate music to a celestial realm, such as Sigur Ros working with Amiina. But look no further than Metallica’s wonky S&M album for proof that performing rock music with an orchestra can be a gimmick rather than an expansion of sound.
This concert would not be your typical 9:30 Club/Constitution Hall/Meriwether Post Pavilion experience. Bethesda’s Strathmore: what a venue! The apt word to describe it would be cavernous. I was sitting in the orchestra section, but the floor seats went back several dozen rows and up four towering levels. The image that comes to mind (later referenced by the band during the set, generating unanimous nods from the audience) was of the Imperial Senate from the Star Wars prequels. You know what I’m talking about: the giant room featuring the weird alien folk in the floating pods. Somehow Jimmy Smits played a role in this, but I’ve deleted major parts of the series from my memory due to subsequent years of alcohol abuse. The sound throughout the evening was impeccable—surpassing my high expectations of what I expected from a state-of-the-art music center. I’m no audiophile, but this was one of the best sounding shows I’ve had the privilege of attending.
Rising stars Youth Lagoon opened the evening. They’ve come a long way from packing fans into DC9 and Red Palace last fall and Rock and Roll Hotel in March. Singer/keyboardist Trevor Powers and guitarist Logan Hyde were dwarfed in the gigantic venue. Youth Lagoon’s sound can readily be described as intimate or wispy. I just call it good make-out music. Powers’ productions trend more toward the Beach House and early Bon Iver side of the lo-fi spectrum than his class-of-2011 contemporaries like Washed Out or Toro Y Moi. Whereas the songs of many “bedroom artists” were not explicitly designed to be played live, and even then likely for no more than a few dozen scruffs in a cramped bar, Youth Lagoon’s floaty tunes benefited from the Strathmore’s divine amplification.
The electronic beat of “Cannons” reverberated throughout the chamber, accentuating Powers tender voice. His flickering vocals of “Seventeen” captivated the still-sparse audience. The unhurried swelling of interlocking keys and guitar in “July” resembled the skeleton of an early Death Cab song. The duo’s 30-minute set was over too soon, but the good-natured Powers kept the audience smiling throughout. He requested someone trade him a more comfortable t-shirt for his Idahoan flannel shirt and thanked all the “shadows” beyond the first five rows for coming out on a Monday evening. If their career trajectory stays on target, Youth Lagoon should selling-out the Black Cat and 9:30 club pretty soon.
A noticeably-skinnier Gibbard came out with the orchestra at 9 p.m. and immediately launched into the piano-only “Passenger Seat”. The rest of the band, all dressed in black, came out for “Different Names For the Same Thing” from 2005’s Plans. Two more classics, “A Movie Script Ending” and “Title and Registration” were played next. Starting off with the greatest hits is always a way to get the fans on your side.
The decision to hire the orchestra resulted in immediate dividends. Death Cab sounded ill as fuck. People have enjoyed orchestras for centuries. Utilizing strings effectively can maximize music’s emotional intensity. DCFC’s music is already brimming with sappy sentiments. Their alliance makes so much sense. Death Cab and a string orchestra go together like HBO and gratuitous female nudity.
The songs that readily benefited were the ones off Codes and Keys. I had no doubt rocking single “You Are A Tourist” (aka the best song OK GO never wrote) would sound choice live, but I was surprised how the addition of musical mercenaries could flesh out of a lifeless dud like “Underneath The Sycamore”. Considering the Magik*Magik orchestra played on the album versions of “Codes and Keys” and “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, this makes perfect sense. We were hearing the songs the way they were meant to be enjoyed.
Older Death Cab jams like “Bend to Squares” and “Little Furry Bugs” sounded fresh, like receiving a new engine after being out on the highway for the past decade. The group was in good spirits this evening. They discussed the Star Wars-vibe of the concert hall (Gibbard gaffed when he said he was chatting with Chewbacca back stage, when a true Star Wars fan would know that Chewbacca would just go “Narrrrgh”) and guitarist Chris Walla gave a shout out to NPR by providing a “radio voice” intro to “Crooked Teeth” so accurate that it should make Bob Boilen fear for his job.
After a devastating trio of “What Sarah Said”, “Soul Meets Body”, and “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, the band and orchestra departed the stage. After the essential applause, the audience rose from their seats to enjoy an all-acoustic encore, including a stand-up set of toms and an acoustic bass for Jason McGerr and Nick Harmer respectively. I enjoyed watching these indie rock veterans toss back four more songs: something old (2001’s “Steadier Footing”), something new (“Monday Morning”), something borrowed (a perfect cover of The Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror”) and something blue, the heavyhearted“405”, where Gibbard sings, “You keep twisting the truth / That keeps me thrown askew.”
The orchestra returned for three more songs. “I Will Follow You Into The Dark” featured only the strings, Gibbard and his acoustic guitar. I used to find “Into The Dark” a bit cheesy, but as I watched the teenage girls dancing in front of me melt as he sang, “If Heaven and Hell decide / That they both are satisfied / Illuminate the NOs on their vacancy signs,” I gained a new found appreciation for the song. It’s easy to criticize Gibbard’s cheesy lyrics out of context, but it’s tough to be a critical prick when everyone around starts to tear up.
The closing squall of “Transatlanticism” left the audience in awed silence, but I found greater interest in the evening’s penultimate song. “Tiny Vessels” was released in 2003, but one has to wonder if there’s any deeper resonance now when Gibbard sings, “There was a girl with light brown streaks / And she was beautiful but she didn’t mean a thing to me.” I’m of course referring to everyone’s favorite brunette manic pixie dream girl. I don’t why the Gibbard/Deschanel marriage failed. Drugs seems unlikely, as Gibbard said he’s not a big drug guy and methinks the only powder that Zooey ingests is Fun Dip. Perhaps she was sick of his touring or she wanted to focus on HelloGiggles.com. Maybe he was tired of being married to a grown-ass-woman whose primary interests are funfetti frosting, ukuleles and mustache finger tumblrs. I don’t know who-dumped-who but considering this splendid performance, a greedy part of me hopes that Gibbard has returned to the embrace of his true muse: loneliness.
- Youth Lagoon