Death Cab for Cutie’s latest record boasted darker, more sinister tones than the Seattle band’s earlier sunny indie pop records. Coming on the heels of 2006’s tepid “Plans,” it was noble effort. But the band’s stated purpose and the actual effect of “Narrow Stairs” make for quite the divide.  

The band took the stage dressed like they were auditioning for a role as Darth Vader in the school play: black shoes, black pants and black shirts (wait, do these guys like The Cure?). Producer/guitarist/dreamboat Chris Walla was the rebel of the group and dressed like he was auditioning for a spot in Vampire Weekend.

Flanked by dark blue lighting, entering to the tune of ominous choral music and laid in front of the album’s maze-like album art, one thing was made clear: This band is dark.

They opened with sugary-sweet “Narrow Stairs” opener “Bixby Canyon Bridge” before moving on to the swelling cacophony of “Transatlanticism” album opener “The New Year.” Both great songs, as is the majority of Ben Gibbard’s oeuvre, but this band doesn’t need to try so hard to be cool. They aren’t. And in the words of Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” that makes them cool.

I saw them three years ago at Bonnaroo. They were great. Ben Gibbard made jokes about his lack of physical strength — his inability to adjust his mike, for instance — and the band played its insular, articulate indie pop to perfection.

This faux-tough period doesn’t fit the band.

Live performances, especially the ones at larger venues like White River State Park, are all about projection. The band’s performance has to match its presentation. The band is a perfectly capable live act — even remarkable — and they don’t need to try so hard to amend for the crime that was “Plans.”

But they put on a good show. Aside from the band’s pretentious look, they don’t take themselves too seriously. Gibbard is self-deprecating and witty and Walla still has the humanity to interact with his seemingly endless throng of female admirers. They care about their fans, and that’s something.

The band’s live show is revealing in the sense that it shows what a miscalculation “Narrow Stairs” really is. As the band gets bigger and more widely loved — and as they play bigger arenas — their music becomes more withdrawn and less cinematic. Not a good combination.

When the band launched into their meatier material — particularly anything from the “Transatlanticism” era, they were riding on a high, and when they stuck to “Narrow Stairs” material, the set lagged.

But by far the highlight came on the last song of the show, when Gibbard gently coaxed the opening chords of the epic “Transatlanticism” out of his piano. As the piece grew to its climax, the band’s parts picked up steam, and the whole thing came together. For seven minutes, this was total bliss.

 

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