Death Cab For Cutie

support Chastity Belt
author TL date 08/11/15 venue Amager Bio, Copenhagen, DEN

Considering that it had been nine years since Seattle indie/emo-rock veterans Death Cab For Cutie last visited Denmark, the 45 minutes they got to play at this year's NorthSide Festival in Aarhus did not exactly satisfy the built-up demand from local fans of the group. Eight albums in with this year's "Kintsugi", songwriter Ben Gibbard and his colleagues simply have too much good material to play. So when a show was announced in our capital city, the Danes responded in force, making for an almost completely sold out Amager Bio, bustling with people on the floor, on the balcony, in the foyer, queuing for the cloakroom, queuing for merch and queuing for beer. Not queuing too much, though, fortunately, for it to still be possible to get in, get served and get a spot from which to watch tonight's support act.

All photos courtesy of Lykke Nielsen Photography

Chastity Belt

From New York has come the all-female indie quartet Chastity Belt, about whom it sadly soon turns out that their fairer constellation is really the most interesting thing there is to see, hear and say. The group plays a kind of intentionally simplistic and lo-fi shoegaze pop, although, to their credit, they do not perform it as nailed to the spot as you would perhaps expect from hearing it. Bassist Annie Truscott, in particular, looks to enjoy herself, grooving about with more activity than the tunes actually lend themselves to. But precious little happens in Chastity Belt's musical world. The rhythm, although steadily provided by pace-keeper Gretchen Grimm, seems intentionally kept to a constant one, or at maximum two patterns per song, while the two lead guitars circle each other with soft, lazy chord progressions that severely lack in both character and catchiness.

It makes for an atmosphere so relaxed that boring is actually the more appropriate description, bringing to mind a band like Yuck, yet making even their dreamy noise-pop feel dramatic and elaborate in comparison. And it does not help then, that Julia Shapiro on guitar and lead vocals does not sing particularly well, her performance coming out as a barely melodious drawl, while neither Lydia Lund on the lead guitar nor Truscott do much better at supporting her, with the odd bit of harmony sung noticeably out of key. "Is it cool not to care?" muses Shapiro on "IDC", yet looking at the band's casually disheveled appearance, and hearing their awkward attempts at bantering with the crowd between songs, it seems they must have long since assumed that it is indeed, when they were forming an idea about the identity of their band. The phrase "tragically hip" thus comes to mind more and more for each checking of the time as it crawls through Chastity Belt's dreary 30 minutes, as the band fortifies itself as a new figurehead for having an abundance of indie coolness attitude- and appearance-wise, yet having virtually zero interesting musical or lyrical ideas to show for it.


Death Cab For Cutie

The changeover, fortunately, provides time to secure a vodka/energy drink combo to help rediscover a sense of hype in anticipation of tonight's main attraction. And to begin with, Death Cab comes on striking the right notes, with Gibbard cheekily beginning the performance with the "I don't know where to begin" lyric that opens "No Room In Frame" from "Kintsugi". The song's gradually blooming instrumentation helps ease the crowd into the set while cleverly avoiding the mix issues that usually happen when bands open with more full-on tracks. "Crooked Teeth" from 2005's "Plans" follows along with "Photobooth" from the 2000 EP "Forbidden Love" as Death Cab show off their experience and solid form.

Gibbard shifts his weight from one foot to the other to the rhythm of the beat, while confidently navigating the vocal melodies that always surprise with their amount of details, considering the relative smallness of his voice. Whenever there's time, he brandishes his guitar up high, injecting more energy into the performance than you would perhaps expect from listening to the band's often mellow material, and his activity is reflected by new guitarist Dave Depper, who now plays on the band's tours instead of recently departed founding member Chris Walla. However, Nick Harmer on bass, Jason McGerr on drums and Zac Rae on keys (and occasional extra guitar) do play their parts in distinctly more business-like fashion.

Yet at a glance, Death Cab are putting together a solid showing, forging ahead with "Black Sun", "The New Year" and "Ghosts Of Beverly Drive". And particularly the latter proves surprisingly well-suited for the live setting, with the combination of its abrupt guitar signature and driving drum beat proving to be both contagious and danceable. Gibbard does not seem to have time for much audience contact, opting instead to cram in as many songs from the band's extensive catalogue as possible, and to the group's credit, on songs like "New Year" and ".. Beverly Drive", as well as on a later inclusion like "Doors Unlocked And Open", Death Cab prove that they have a surprising capacity for filling the listener with an urge to move.

Needless to say, the set is tight as all that, moving ahead relentlessly with only few details lost to the mix, and the high average quality of the various songs speaks for itself. But with that being said, the full sensation of exhilaration noticeably stays absent, as more and more details that have room for improvement stack up to keep the desired experience in check. Death Cab may play a respectable two hours for the ticket cost, which at 350 DKK is among the more expensive Copenhagen shows. But other than likely going into the transportation of an actual piano, though, the money does not seem to have bought any sort of production, which could be OK considering that we are talking about a relatively modest indie rock band in the first place, but at least the light design could have done with some extra attention.

For most of the show, the band performs under a dull red/purple combination, that does not exactly help with seeing whether there's much emotion on Gibbard's face, which is of course already half-covered by his emo fringe. A tiny issue perhaps, but it creates a distance which grows wider for each slower song the band delivers where the tightness gets to feeling somewhat robotic. Songs like "Black Sun", "Little Wanderer", "Transatlanticism" and "What Sarah Said" work well on record, because they thrive on solemn, thoughtful and hypnotic vibes, where the drag in tempo draws extra attention to Gibbard's tender lyricism. Yet here the extra loudness and a sense of slightly hurried momentum sucks the space away from these songs, which - particularly in the case of the beautiful "What Sarah Said" - is actually a considerable source of disappointment.

It gets better then, when Gibbard sings with only one instrument to accompany him, like when he relies on his own acoustic guitar for a touching rendition of "I Will Follow You Into The Dark", or when the eventual encore is commenced with him singing while Rae plays the piano of "Passenger Seat". Here there's a sense of presence and emotion that prompts the audience to hush and distracts us more fully from thoughts of maybe taking a bar- or bathroom break. But why only here? (and granted, in the more energetic track mentioned earlier) With almost 20 years behind them as a band, Death Cab should know by now that a huge part of their appeal lies in slowing things down and getting quietly sentimental, yet a show like this too often feels like it does not have time for that.

Granted, people who did not get to hear their favourite song tonight might disagree, but really, the show as a whole would have benefitted both from the band playing their slower and mid-paced songs with a softer touch, and with there being a bit more breathing room and perhaps interaction time between some of the songs. Tight and routinely energetic as Death Cab may be, getting to hear a lot of songs at the cost of their delivery being in somewhat assembly line fashion does not seem worth it. We can sit at home and listen to all the records if we want, but the reason we come out for the live show is to feel each song envelop us more, and to feel closer to the band. And regrettably, Death Cab did not really opt to focus on that tonight, mixing those mentioned quality moments with an equal measure of moments, where you got the impression that while it was the first Copenhagen show in nine years for us, it was perhaps just a small day at the office for them.


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