Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Death Cab for Cutie - 'Codes and Keys'

Sometimes writing an album review means telling a band they’re wrong. They’re not necessarily bad at songwriting, just in explaining their body of work. It means telling Weezer which album actually was their best since Pinkerton (It’s “Red Album,” but that’s not saying much) or ranking Foo Fighters album by loudness (It’s actually a loop that begins and ends with In Your Honor). The same holds true for Codes and Keys by Death Cab for Cutie.

The two things DCFC are pushing in Codes’ promotional cycle are 1) This is a keyboard record, not a guitar-centric record like Narrow Stairs and 2) This is their first truly “happy” record and therefore a big emotional departure for fans of the group’s output. While I agree with the former, I don’t necessarily agree with the latter.

As far as instrumentation goes, Codes is a departure. The record is indeed more keyboard heavy, and while guitar occasionally plays a significant role on tunes like “You Are a Tourist,” the album overall is dominated by piano and synths. This new approach yields the closest thing to a Postal Service throwback in the form of danceable tracks “Home is a Fire” and “Some Boys.”

As far as statement number two goes, the one about Codes being a happy record, well, they sort of got it right. On a lyrical level, Gibbard is more unabashedly gleeful on tracks like “Stay Young, Go Dancing” and “Monday Morning.” He doesn’t cushion his love songs with the macabre here like he did on “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” or “Transatlanticism.” But this is still a Death Cab album. It’s not like frontman Ben Gibbard reinvented his singing style. The tunes still bear more of a resemblance to Narrow Stairs than advertised; they’re just played on different instruments.

Codes is not a pizza party or anything. It still sounds like Death Cab. If anything, the happy tag is misleading in that it implies the songs will be catchy pop ditties, when in fact the record is far more subtle in its melodies than Narrow Stairs or Plans. While that makes it a little less enjoyable at first, repeat listens yield a fitting addition to the DFCF catalogue.

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