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Death Knell for Death Cab?

 

Death Cab For Cutie: Plans

Atlantic / Wea, 2005

Rating: 2.4

 

Posted: August 29, 2005

By Laurence Station

Let’s avoid the “Back in the good ol’ Barsuk days” crutch in reviewing Plans, Death Cab For Cutie’s fifth release, and first on a major label. It’s too easy to use the “too big for an indie label”, OC flavor-of-the-season popularity, and big-budget overkill crutches to explore why this is the talented group’s weakest effort. Besides, the band's been on a downward slide since 2001’s still listenable Photo Album; the unremarkable Transatlanticism at least sported a few standout moments. By comparison, the vanilla Plans lacks memorable hooks or even the quirky indie pop-isms that have been the band’s bread and butter.

So, what happened? Ask principal songwriter/singer Ben Gibbard or guitarist/producer Christopher Walla. Obviously, the pair endorses the final product but, unless you’re a diehard fan, it’s difficult to wholeheartedly embrace the eleven tracks comprising this endeavor or even begrudge them a little courtesy affection. Lyrically there’s a tired but usually emotionally rich “love is stronger than death” vein to be mined. Musically, however, it’s difficult to focus on the deeper meaning underlying the words.

The interesting tempo shifts on, say, "For What Reason," from 2000's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, or the unguarded emotional pain expressed on "Styrofoam Plates," from The Photo Album, are nowhere to be found here. The “live for the moment” screed “Marching Bands of Manhattan” attempts to kick-start the album with steadily rising chords, a faux-anthemic ascension that never achieves the emotional peak such bombast all but demands. It’s a less successful retread of Transatlanticism’s "The New Year" -- Renewal; hope; a fresh start. But there’s nothing fresh here, just obvious chord progressions that can’t be bothered to work up a good, fist-pumping sweat.

The really bad news: You’ve just heard the highlight. Those eager for a Death Cab dance number are in for a case of “you get what your wish for” with “Soul Meets Body,” an overly verbose, New Order-lite piece lacking a distinctive beat -- proof, if nothing else, that the band should stick to guitar-oriented pop rock. The plodding, gratingly piano-plinking “Summer Skin” is made to order for back-to-school kids nursing those inarguably painful first heartbreaks (“We left our love in our summer skin”). “I Will Follow You into the Dark” desires to do just that. But does it have to do so with such slow deliberation?

The busted-relationship take “Crooked Teeth” hints at the pep of Death Cab circa We Have the Facts, but even this one wouldn’t make the final cut on any of those earlier albums. The biggee, however, and album centerpiece (despite being sequenced third from last) is “What Sarah Said.” Here, in an I.C.U. setting, where breaths are rationed, we get the whole point of the exercise: “Love is watching someone die.” If you’re really in it for the long haul, you’ll be there when the light fades from a loved ones’ eyes. Too bad the song fails to resonate with the depth such life-and-death material should convey. Again, blame it on the arrangements. Unmemorable and inoffensive, Death Cab has gone from oddball indie-pop kids to mature professionals who now have a lot more people counting on their success.

Love may indeed be stronger than death, but Plans (despite initial sales figures that may rival a week’s take for the latest Now That’s What I Call Music confection) will not be a work destined to endure across the ages -- or even past next season’s OC, for that matter.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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