By Mark Guarino
With their affable personalities and nerd-core demeanor, the band Death Cab for Cutie doesn’t look like and doesn’t act like a serious rock band in transition.
But they sound like one.
The band’s sold-out show Tuesday at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park followed in the footsteps of Wilco and Radiohead, two likeminded, shapeshifting rock bands that also headlined the city’s lakefront, a highbrow setting usually reserved for orchestras and dance troupes. Death Cab for Cutie, from Seattle, similarly took advantage of the backdrop to call attention to the dark moods and seductive textures of songs from “Narrow Stairs” (Atlantic), the band’s latest and best album, their sixth in ten years.
With dense fog caking the park and temperatures dialed down to an unseasonable chill, it felt like the band had hauled Seattle to the Midwest. But there was something else somewhat reserved about the band’s the 90-minute, 21-song set. Despite the muscular sound of “Narrow Stairs” and its break from the tender pop ballads that have become their signature, the show never fully ignited. Much of this has to do with one of the band’s strengths: Thanks to the obsessive craftsmanship of producer-guitarist-keyboardist Chris Walla, Death Cab is primarily a band that challenges itself best in a studio. “Narrow Stairs” is the result of that sweat equity: the music is designed for the heart and hips, a full audio confectionary that never minimizes its dramatic pulse.
In Millennium Park, the songs sounded more sedated, the playing hesitant. Songs from their earliest albums were pretty but drowsy, thanks to Ben Gibbard’s tender vocals and Walla’s chiming guitar set against neatly syncopated rhythms. Like the musicians themselves, the music sounded humble and restrained. It took nearing the show’s end for the band to loosen their grip. By connecting three songs from the new album — “I Will Possess Your Heart,” “Cath” and “No Sunlight” — the band locked into fiercer grooves that grew with more urgency than what had been played all night. On “Heart,” Walla’s guitar echoed with ghostly feedback following a creeping four-minute instrumental intro by drummer Jason McGerr and bassist Nick Harmer. Even Gibbard, who sidled into Walla’s keyboard spot, detached himself from the lovelorn perspective of most of his songs to play up the obsessions of a stalker. Despite their finely placed textures, the songs were grounded in strong melodies that kept them accessible.
Gibbard did not fail to note he happened to playing the hometown of a certain U.S. senator who claimed the democratic nomination that same night. “There’s a very good change, almost perfect chance, your senator’s the next president of the United States,” he said. “This one’s for you Barack.” Then he played a solo acoustic version of a song that carried a title not likely to be played at a victory rally come November: “I’ll Follow You Into the Dark.”