Brent Knopf formed Ramona Falls in early 2009 while recording on Menomena’s third album was delayed. The Ramona Falls debut full length Intuit featured collaborations with 35 different musicians on both U.S. coasts, and was generally well-received. One of the keys to making that record work was an uncanny ability to surprise the listener at every turn. A violin solo would pop up here, a choir there, and genre influences would shift wildly from looped electronica one moment to Eastern European folk the next. It sounds terribly unbalanced, but there was a subtlety and charisma behind it that sucked you in. After touring in support of Menomena’s record Mines was complete at the end of 2010, Knopf announced he was leaving the band to focus on Ramona Falls. Now that this project has his full attention, you’d expect Ramona Falls’ second record to be even denser than the last, continuing the evolution into obscurist pop. Then again, expectations can often be misleading.
The new album Prophet surprises mainly in how it pulls back on the reins of experimentation a little in favor of something that’s rather normal-sounding and pop-friendly. On the surface, it seems that Knopf is in search of some sort of mainstream success. Before he can actually get there though, he’s in dire need of some confidence on one end of his musical spectrum. The arrangements on this album are muscular and bright, but his vocals are almost exactly the opposite. He sings like a hybrid of Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, The Clientele’s Alasdair MacLean, and Sufjan Stevens, which is to say in a lilting, almost whispered fashion. His inability to match the enthusiasm and grandiosity of the busy melodies actually hurts its overall effectiveness. More often than not his singing winds up nearly drowned out by everything going on, and even when it meshes well with the environment it lacks the gravity and emotion required to truly hit home. The lyrics are more personal than anything Knopf has written before, but they suffer because of the straightlaced and flat way they’re sung. Opening track “Bodies of Water” is about the double-edged sword of romantic relationships, how you grow and share as a person but also expose yourself to the potential to get hurt. The complicated arrangement speaks well to the message of the song, but the vocals fall short. “Brevony” is a heavy and ferocious electric guitar cut, and though there are references to wrath and anger, Knopf calmly sings those words and destroys their potential impact. Not everything gets ruined due to some imperfect vocals. First single “Spore” is a slow and bubbling electro build to an energetic release, and Knopf pushes his voice accordingly. Though it feels disturbingly like an early Death Cab for Cutie song, “If I Equals U” maintains a certain degree of calm that makes its execution quite comfortable. Sad break-up song “Proof” might just win the award for album’s best though, with a complex yet delicate arrangement that includes orchestration and some careful plucking.
Perhaps Knopf’s biggest mistake in putting together this new Ramona Falls record was that he made it too energetic and upbeat. Normally such a thing would be encouraged because it tends to make a record more interesting. There is quite a bit about Prophet that is interesting and enjoyable as a direct result of this approach. The songs are far more rock oriented, but pounding pianos or blaring horns always make their presence felt here or there to throw a slight twist on an otherwise pedestrian melody. It’s in that way this record bears similar markings to Intuit. But using that record and his previous work with Menomena as examples, Knopf benefits most from careful and precarious execution; a certain fragility in the composition that matches the fragility in his voice. The greater confidence he attains instrumentally, the louder or more brash he gets, and the easier it is for him to stumble. A fair portion of this album leaves him tripping and trying to catch up with the many ideas spilling out through various instruments. Maybe with some vocal help he can catch up, or maybe he can scale back just enough to put everything back in its right place.
Just because you’re living somewhere doesn’t mean it’s home. As the common idiom states, “Home is where the heart is”. In that sense, the place doesn’t so much matter because it’s what and who you have with you that defines home. Many explorers throughout the ages have gone on quests, journeys and adventures seeking new lands and uncharted territories. It was the sense of the untouched, the discovery of something new that was a driving force, but for many it was also a case of wanderlust. You keep moving from place to place in the hopes that you’ll eventually reach a destination that suits you so well you never want to leave. Some restless people find it while plenty of others do not, destined to keep moving for the rest of their lives. But there are also some that are comfortable with where they are. They’ve got a great job, family close by, maybe even their own family, a lovely house in a lovely part of town, and they couldn’t envision uprooting any of that. Some would call those people lucky, while others might best define them as naive, only settled in because they have no idea that something better is out there. Death Cab for Cutie have written songs about places before, whether it was the anti-Los Angeles anthem “Why You’d Want to Live Here” or direct references to locations like “Lowell, MA” and “Coney Island”. They’ve traveled around the world touring in support of six previous records, and you might think that would help them best define where the best place to settle down might be. It’s fascinating then that the guys picked up stakes and moved away from their home state of Washington, relocating to L.A. instead. Sure, with their ever-increasing popularity and a major label record deal in pocket they could afford to live in a city filled with Hollywood glitz and glamour, but it does seem like the antithesis of what they (or at least Ben Gibbard) were strongly against a mere 10 years ago. Times change and people change too, particularly Gibbard, who in the three years since the band’s last record “Narrow Stairs” made the decision to give up drinking and then got married to actress Zooey Deschanel. Both those things appear to have improved his mood significantly on the new Death Cab album “Codes and Keys”, but while his outlook may be sunnier, there’s still an undercurrent of restlessness present on many of the songs. Los Angeles may be growing on him, but that’s not stopping him from searching for a place he truly feels can be defined as home.
If you’ve spent any significant amount of time in Los Angeles, you’ll know that in most places you go, access is king. Having the right code or the proper key will often get you past the proverbial “velvet rope”. “With walls/built up around us/the bricks make me nervous/they’re only so strong, love,” Gibbard worries on opening track “Home Is A Fire”. The concern there is more about earthquakes, as more specifically defined in the song’s chorus, which has the lines, “Plates they will shift/houses will shake”. But his concern appears to be less about his own safety and more for those he loves and cares about, which is admirable. He’d rather live someplace else, only “there’s nowhere left to go”. Metaphorically speaking, the tectonic plates have already shifted, and Gibbard’s world has changed because of it. He’s become trapped beneath the rubble of Los Angeles, complete with its extensive gated communities and celebrity culture in which high walls, both physical and mental, are built to keep other people out rather than in. Holding others at a distance carries over into the “Codes and Keys” title track, though the subject matter deals more with two people trying to protect themselves from the rest of the world. “You’re on the floor/fearful of what’s outside your door/but the codes and keys/they can’t protect you from the pangs of jealousy,” sings Gibbard in one of his more empathetic tones. Trapping yourself inside a house doesn’t mean all the evil can’t get past your front door, and you can just as easily suffocate (go crazy) spending all your time in such an enclosed space. So the world and all it’s problems are essential to survival, but the lesson here is that relying on a partner to help you navigate such treacherous terrain can make it easier and better. On “Doors Unlocked and Open”, Gibbard brings up a lot of open road imagery, from “dotted lines/seas of concrete” to “mile markers/counting down”, seeming to seek a place of isolation. His ultimate conclusion, it seems, is that the only place where we can “be free with doors unlocked and open” is by going “down in the ocean of sound”. Apparently not even moving out of the “gilded crowns” of California can provide him with the safety and comfort he so desperately seeks. First single “You Are A Tourist” seeks to teach us a similar lesson, because, “if you feel just like a tourist/in the city you were born then it’s time to go/And define your destination/there’s so many different places to call home”.
Once “Codes and Keys” reaches its halfway point with “Unobstructed Views”, there appears to be a sea change that happens. The song itself is a tried and true ode to love and relationships, and one could certainly assume Gibbard wrote it with his wife in mind. In fact, for much of the second half of the album there are ruminations on love and being happy with a partner. By far the best written song on the entire record comes in the form of “Monday Morning”, primarily because it works in little details that you can tell have deep emotional significance attached to them. In providing comfort to his lady when she expresses concerns about growing older and her looks fading, Gibbard says, “But all these lines and greys refine/They are the maps of our design/of what began on a Monday morning”. And connecting the threads and overall theme the album seems to echo, lines like, “I am a bird that’s in need of grounding/I’m built to fly away/I never learned how to stay”, suggests that once he finally got into this relationship and found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, she helped him to find his home. As a wild animal roams the earth with no sense of place or direction, she brought him in from the wild and domesticated him, giving him something he never thought was possible before. This lesson is best taught in “Underneath the Sycamore”, in which Gibbard reflects on what this love has done to him. “Oh I was such a wretched man/Searching everywhere for a homeland/But now we are under the same sun/Feel it through the leaves let it heal us,” he sings knowingly. The final lines of the song mimic the final moments of a film or the last few pages of a book in how they appear to wrap up the storyline with relative neatness. After acknowledging that neither person in this relationship is perfect by any means, now they’re here under this sycamore tree, “Where we find our peace/This is where we are released”. What follows is more of a joyous epilogue, particularly on closing track “Stay Young, Go Dancing”. Given Gibbard’s previously admitted distaste for Los Angeles, it’s fitting he opens the song with the lines, “Life is sweet in the belly of the beast/and with her song in your heart/it can never bring you down”. The location might not be ideal, but his love for this woman protects him from whatever darkness might come their way. He also keeps things upbeat, trying to make sure we’re all aware that youth isn’t about how young you look on the outside, but how you feel on the inside. It’s the same sort of platitude echoed earlier about finding yourself a home – the location matters far less than the people and things you have as part of your life.
So after a close analysis purely based on the words that Ben Gibbard has written and without any sort of confirmation as to how autobiographical they might be, there is a whole other side to “Codes and Keys” that’s absolutely worth exploring: the actual sound of the record. Interviews with the band prior to the release of this album all say that there was a different approach to the instrumental side of this collection of songs. Inspired by more electronic-based recordings from Brian Eno, New Order and David Bowie, Death Cab for Cutie chose to scale back their use of guitars significantly this time around, focusing more on keyboards and other non-stringed instruments. There are some programmed beats in addition to the live drumming at different points, and you can even hear touches of things like electronic gurgles that would make you think of Radiohead’s “Kid A” if it weren’t so Death Cab-ish. Somehow the band has been able to keep their sound largely intact while playing around with a host of different melodies that are by no means guitar-centric. The electro skittering in the background on “Home Is A Fire” is one of the more exciting things in an otherwise subdued album opener, and something you might not notice unless you were paying close attention. There is some light orchestration on the title track that is a healthy addition to the pounding piano and drums that form the basis for the main melody. Even on a song like “Some Boys”, which features lyrics that feel like they belong on one of the last two Death Cab albums instead of this one, the pulsating electronic bits mixed with piano and only brief stabs of guitar turns the track into something rather winning and catchy. The opening instrumental portion of “Doors Unlocked and Open” has a really weird familiarity to it, almost like something you’d head in a hybrid between Broken Social Scene and The Dodos. Nick Harmer’s bass work on the track is particularly exceptional, and that driving force is what largely elevates the song to one of the album’s highlights. When “Unobstructed Views” shows up as the record’s six minute centerpiece, the purely electronic open makes it easy to recall Gibbard’s other project The Postal Service, but there’s also enough different about it to keep you from getting the two bands confused. The song’s spacey ambience and grand piano intensity provides a perfect turnkey melody signaling the shift from the aimless vagabond themes in part one to the earthbound focused love of part two. The buzzy synths and keyboards of “Monday Morning” succeed at keeping the melody light and airy, strongly matching the charm and whimsy felt at the start of a new relationship. The very sparse keyboards (and nothing else) in the first half of “St. Peter’s Cathedral” bring an air of intimacy to the track that carries over into the much fuller second half of the song. It’s no quiet acoustic of “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”, but it’s as close to a one-on-one moment Gibbard gets on this record. The acoustic guitar bounce of “Stay Young, Go Dancing”, with splashes of piano and strings really bring out the upbeat nature of the song and ensure that the record closes with the warmth of a wink and a smile from a really good friend.
The good, nay, great news about “Codes and Keys” is that it sounds a whole lot like a very revived Death Cab for Cutie. Like a professional athlete that was sidelined with an injury after three or four seasons, the band almost seemed like they were playing hurt the last couple records. Less pop-driven and even more depressing than usual, “Narrow Stairs” was a low for these guys, and perhaps a wake up call. They took their time, got proper bed rest, and committed to returning to the music game in full health. With this record, it appears they have succeeded. This is easily their best since “Transatlanticism”, and perhaps even earlier than that. What makes this album particularly challenging to judge however is trying to remove any personal bias from music created for everybody. Long time Death Cab fans will admit that as with most artists, certain albums can mean more or less to you depending on your own personal place in life at the time. If you heard “The Photo Album” for the first time in college back in the day and it strongly resonated with you, ten years later and with a 9-5 job “Codes and Keys” might not strike you on that same level. In all likelihood, it probably won’t. Or maybe you were 18 and thought “Plans” was insanely good back in 2005 and can’t “get into” the band’s earlier stuff. Don’t think that Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Nick Harmer and Jason McGerr are staying the same age either, though their grand hope is probably that as they grow old gracefully and add new twists to their own sound, that long time fans also growing older will be on that same path. In an ideal world new fans would keep the cycle going as well. The great news is that there is some significant growth from the band here, and that in itself is nice to hear. The more positive outlook in terms of lyrics and themes is nice as well. Are they doing enough of any of those things? Not really, but they’ve got a major label record contract to worry about, as well as fans they don’t want to take too far down the rabbit hole for fear of alienating them. So from the widest of widescreen viewpoints, Death Cab for Cutie have done well here. They’re firing on all cylinders once again, may peace and blessings be showered upon them. Now if only they’d do something about that far-too-scripted live show.
Prior to seeing Death Cab for Cutie play the Metro on Friday night, I had seen them on four separate occasions. The first two times they were supporting 2003’s “Transatlanticism” and the following two times they were supporting their major label debut in 2005’s “Plans”. Ultimately it amounted to four times in about three years, though two of them were headlining music festivals where they were up against poorer options. It also helped that I was obsessed with the band and felt that Ben Gibbard was one of the biggest songwriting prodigies of the last decade. Seriously, his lyrics seem to speak to me. But somewhere in the 3 year gap between Death Cab records, which was also a time period where I graduated from college, the band went down in importance in my mind. That their last album, “Narrow Stairs” was a bleak and generally poor quality piece of music only pushed them further from my radar. It’s easy to suggest that my slowly developed dispassion for the band was a result of their ascent in popularity and major label status. More likely it was a combination of a couple things: my own tastes in music changing along with the fact that “Narrow Stairs” really was a pretty bad album. It’s been another 3 years since that time, and the band is finally ready to put out a new album at the end of the month, titled “Codes and Keys”. In the weeks prior to its release, the boys decided to do a little tour, with the word “little” being the most important descriptor. Considering they regularly headline festivals and play for tens of thousands of people (and announced an arena tour for this summer), Death Cab booked a whole bunch of club dates at venues with capacities of under 2,000. So it was with the hope of reigniting my passion for the band and catching an early listen to a few songs from the upcoming album, in addition to seeing them perform in such a small and classic location.
One of the things that has always disappointed me about the Death Cab for Cutie live show is how neatly scripted it all is. They start with “The New Year”, make sure to play all of the singles from the “Transatlanticism” record and after, and then close with the song “Transatlanticism”. What really counts is the selection of songs that come between all those predictable moments. Breaking Friday night’s 25 song setlist down by album, the clear winner of the night was “Codes and Keys”, as the band played at least 6 (if not 7) songs from it, or over half the record. That’s to be expected, but it did leave the crowd in a bit of a spot. Playing a lot of new and unheard material can be fun to hear, but you can’t sing along to it nor do you know how good or bad it might be. My very early opinion on the new songs is that they’re a definite improvement over much of “Narrow Stairs”. On the whole they’re a little brighter and catchier too, though they stay largely true to everything we’ve come to expect from Death Cab. Both Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla have been trying to talk up the new album by saying it’s a lot more experimental in nature, with fewer guitars and more electronic dabbling, but that only appears true to a minimal degree. Maybe the live recreation is a little different than the recorded one. Also, though their sound is typically top notch and one of the best not only in Chicago but in the country, from the back corner position I was stuck in with the sold out crowd, much of the set came across as muddy and extremely bass-heavy. The band also screwed up/aborted/restarted two of the new songs, likely due to not having played them live many times before. They’re sweetly forgiven for those sorts of mini blunders. Anyways, the point about the new stuff is that it gives me just a sliver of hope that maybe the band will do as well or better than their previous peak. Call it a long shot still, but once I’ve heard the “final” versions of these songs I’ll be able to better judge.
As to the older material, it was excellent to hear the “FOrbidden Love” EP’s “Photobooth” early on in the set. Had the band released that song today, it’d likely be a big hit for them. The wealth of Death Cab for Cutie’s catalogue was actually spread out pretty well across the set, with a few minor issues. It may have been their previous album, but “Narrow Stairs” did not deserve to have four songs in the set. Of course they also could have done a lot worse than “Grapevine Fires” and “Long Division” in addition to the two singles from that record. Their most popular record to date, “Transatlanticism”, earned equal footing with “Narrow Stairs” in claiming four spots in the set, with the traditional starting and closing songs plus their two popular singles smashed in between. The dream matchup there would have been to try a deeper cut from the record such as “We Looked Like Giants” or “Expo 86” rather than the same old, same old. As far as “Plans” was concerned, that was another “all business” transaction, pulling the only three singles from that record and nothing more. The farther back they went the better it got though, which is why “A Movie Script Ending” and “We Laugh Indoors” felt so fresh and exciting even if they’re more “go to” picks from “The Photo Album”. Surely they would have done “I Was A Kaleidoscope” or “Blacking Out the Friction” had they been able to squeeze it in. Instead, three songs from “We Have the Facts and We’re Voting Yes” emerged from hibernation, with “Company Calls” being the biggest shocker. “405” is a classic and always a delight to hear as well. Finally, mid-way through the set came the lone “Something About Airplanes” song, “Pictures in an Exhibition”. An even more compelling choice would have been “President of What?”, but it’s a miracle to even get a single song from that 1998 debut so let’s consider it a win.
If I’m being highly or too harshly critical of Death Cab for Cutie and their choice in songs from Friday night, it’s because I care about their well-being as a band. The hope for any band is that they’ll continually evolve the longer they’re around, both on record and on stage. You pray for a solid catalogue from which they can pull any number of songs, including b-sides and not bat an eye. Perhaps as a band they grow tired of performing the same songs night after night and either allow their set lists to vary wildly or take the tracks we’ve come to know and love and tear them to shreds in new and invigorating ways. For a band that is close to celebrating 15 years together, they look awfully bored and awfully mellow on stage. Sonically there’s very little fault in their performance. These are songs they’ve played so many times they could do it in their sleep. You watch as Gibbard hits every note with that syrupy sweet voice of his while he bounces back and forth from foot to foot. You see Chris Walla bent over some machines or a piano. Nick Harmer moves around a bit as he’s slapping out his bass lines, while Jason McGerr remains trapped behind a drum kit as usual. It’s a little better than an Interpol live show, where the guys pretty much glue their feet to the floor and play everything straight (but their lighting rigs move!), but not much better. I stopped going to Interpol shows after seeing them five times and realizing they weren’t getting any better both on and off the stage. Now with my fifth Death Cab for Cutie show, a lot of those same feelings are cropping up. Will I ever feel the need to see them live again? Maybe if they put out a truly great new record and I want to hear songs from it. With the completely unfamiliar new material from “Codes and Keys” that seemed to dominate the set, I need more time and listens) to properly digest those tracks to see if the album will be truly great. Once I reach that point, the next best thing these guys can do is switch it up. They may be obliged to play (some of) their singles, but it’d be nice if they’d try and make a concerted effort to avoid pleasing all of their fans all of the time. Those that have stood by them for 10 years or more deserve a little more love than they’re currently getting.
One final note on the crowd and their reaction/behavior. It was a frat-tastic evening with plenty of strong-armed alcoholics trying to show how indie they are by attending a Death Cab show. If many of them weren’t making a trip to the bar, they were high-fiving and chatting through many of the songs. Please note that not everyone was like this, as there were a good deal of respectful and smart concert-goers that wanted to hear every note because they paid for it. Still, cheering and applause appeared to be very thin through much of the set (where new stuff dominated), and only near the end where it was hit-after-hit complete with sing-alongs did people start to get truly excited. “Aw man, they’re hitting their stride now”, some idiot next to me said during “The Sound of Settling”. What made it funny was that they ended their main set immediately after he said that. Still, the general lack of excitement from the crowd either impacted the band negatively or impacted my impression of the show negatively. Either way, the subdued reaction did not help. You saw Death Cab for Cutie at the METRO. They will likely never play a place that small ever again. At the very least, that was something to cheer about.
The New Year
Codes and Keys*
I Will Possess Your Heart
I Will Follow You Into the Dark
You Are A Tourist*
Underneath the Sycamore*
Pictures in an Exhibition
Doors Unlocked and Open*
We Laugh Indoors
Soul Meets Body
The Sound of Settling \\**ENCORE**//
Home Is A Fire*
??? (New Song)*
Title and Registration
A Movie Script Ending