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Death Cab Unveil ‘Codes & Keys’ in Toronto

The Seattle rockers thrive off a crowd mesmerized by Ben Gibbard's heart-baring songs, both new and old.

Death Cab for Cutie accomplished one of the more remarkable (and respectable) indie-to-mainstream crossovers of the past decade, thanks in large part to Ben Gibbard’s uncommon ability to vent very universal strains of male angst in a non-icky way. So while the crowd at Wednesday night’s tour kickoff at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre engaged in more than a few beardy, hugs-‘n’-all “I fuckin’ love this song!” bro’-downs, and swooning ladies were out in numbers, the fact that they were responding to one of the more literate, articulate, and real songwriters of his generation made the genericism feel more accidental than anything.

For Gibbard is no John Mayer. He’s stumbled into the tasteful end of the frontman’s “some wanna be him, some wanna fuck him” predicament. Sure, some wish they met more sensitive guys who could unselfconsciously spin such golden sad-sack poetry, and some envy the fact that such soul-baring might land them their very own Zooey Deschanel.

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His modesty went a long way, too. “I’m always surprised at certain shows by how well everyone knows these songs,” Gibbard remarked at one point, having been consistently joined on lead vocals on de facto Death Cab standards both precious (“Grapevine Fires,” “What Sarah Said”) and pop-tastic (“Crooked Teeth,” “The Sound of Settling”) throughout an evening that seamlessly mingled material dating back to 2000’s We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes with a brace of cuts from the band’s forthcoming seventh album, Codes & Keys (due May 31 via Atlantic Records) to little discernible variation in audience appreciation.

It wasn’t a perfect set, by any means, and the crowd only ever got as rabid as Death Cab for Cutie’s mild temperament permitted. A strong opening salvo introduced by Narrow Stairs’ coiled stalker single “I Will Possess Your Heart” and beefed-up, belatedly big-room-schooled readings of Transatlanticism’s “The New Year” and The Photo Album’s “Why You’d Want to Live Here” and “A Movie Script Ending” gave way to another 75 minutes that played out at the same sustained, pleasing-but-peak-deficient energy level. Albeit with the occasional, humanizing false lyrical start or missed cue — “Soul Meets Body” had a proper “ouch” moment of rhythmic wonkiness during the breakdown — thrown in to remind all in attendance that this was only the band’s third live performance (after a “secret” warm-up gig in Seattle the previous week and a late-night TV appearance) in two years.

As much has been made of Codes & Keys’ deliberate departure from Death Cab for Cutie’s previous, guitar-based modus operandi, too, new tunes such as “Home Is a Fire,” “Underneath the Sycamore,” and “Some Boys” really only stood out by virtue of their unfamiliarity in such a “hit”-heavy context, not because they represented shocking stylistic departures. The Krautrockin’ “Doors Unlocked and Open” wandered out there a bit on a Peter Hook-esque bassline, and while Codes’ first single “You Are a Tourist” might lean as much towards the Stone Roses as the blogosphere claims, it sounded very much like we’ve come to expect Death Cab for Cutie to sound since their major-label coming-out, via 2005’s Plans, necessitated a bit more effort to project towards the cheap seats.

Still, you’ll never be able to argue with a monster ballad like “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” a mid-set solo, acoustic ditty by Gibbard that had male and female Death Cab disciples alike crying into their beers over the terrible/beautiful inevitability of death. And why not? Contemporary American miserablism doesn’t get much better than Death Cab for Cutie, and that’s why these cats always get a pass.