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Death Cab For Cutie - Codes and Keys

In my experience, the quality of most bands' releases tend to take one of four trajectories:

1) They flat line out, and always suck
2) They flat line out, and are always good
3) They start inspired, releasing a few great albums, and then lose their inspiration and devolve into crap
4) They start out rough and not so great, figure out their craft, and then release excellent material

If you had asked me back in college when I first heard about Death Cab For Cutie (after the release of The Photo Album, to be precise), I would have told you that they were number 1. Three albums, and nothing really worth listening to? Not a band worth investigating. Their material wasn't bad, per se, but it wasn't worth the effort required to obtain a CD or download mp3s. If you had asked me about four years back, when I discovered (or rediscovered) them, I would have told you that they were number 4. Yeah, those first three albums weren't great, but holy shit, Transatlanticism is fucking fantastic, and Plans is one for the ages. For the ages. And were you to ask me now, after the release of Narrow Stairs, and very recently, of Codes and Keys, I'd tell you that they're moving into the lesser seen territory of number 5, which is either the band that sucks, peaks, and then sucks again, or perhaps the band that is just spotty as all hell.

The first four songs on Codes and Keys are all decidedly mediocre. None of them offend my musical sensibilities, but none of them make me want to listen to them again. The first sign of any creative life from the band comes in You Are a Tourist, the album's one stand out, crank-the-volume song. The driving, low bass and simple but forceful drum beat are the heart of the song, while the catchy guitar riff and shimmering arpeggios that are played over top of it are the ornamentation that take it from good to awesome. Everything in the piece is exactly where it should be, every guitar part is perfect. I compulsively reach for the volume knob when You Are a Tourist comes on. It is a song that breeds hope and confidence.

And then Unobstructed Views follows it, and it is like the slow deflating of a balloon. It's not a bad song. It's north of mediocre, even. It's different for Death Cab, like much of this album. There's less guitar, more keyboards and synth, less catchy guitar riffing, more ambient noise on this album. But this is no Kid A or The Age of Adz. It's not a reinvention, and it's not particularly good, either. It doesn't fall totally flat, but neither does it truly succeed, as those two albums did. The obvious and inevitable comparison is that, eight years later, Death Cab For Cutie has finally start taking heavy influence from its most famous side project, The Postal Service.

This isn't exactly the bubbling electronica-pop of The Postal Service, but it's significantly closer than anything else Death Cab has put out previously. It's probably a middle ground between Give Up and Plans, really. Unobstructed Views is completely without guitar, and in fact completely electronic save the piano. Monday Morning has guitars, but keeps them low in the mix. It's one of the better songs on the album, and one of only three that really stand out to me. Underneath the Sycamore is the other of those songs, and is my favorite behind You Are a Tourist, and sounds the most like the Death Cab For Cutie of Transatlanticism and Plans of anything on Codes and Keys.

The rest of the album's second half isn't bad, I suppose. St. Peter's Cathedral could have come from The Postal Service's next album, Portable Television's piano gets tiresome, and Stay Young, Go Dancing is pretty enjoyable. The album is something of an analogy for Death Cab's career thus far. It's spotty. It's unpredictable - and not in the sense that they're doing surprising, amazing things, but rather that they're sometimes doing that and sometimes making mediocre, uninspired music. Parts of Codes and Keys are great, but most of it's not. Parts of Death Cab's discography are great, but most of it's not.

I would have never expected Plans after listening to The Photo album. For something that great to follow something that middle of the road is quite a surprise. I didn't expect an album as middling as Narrow Stairs after the brilliance of Plans. After Codes and Keys, I have no idea what to expect. Is Death Cab just in a slump, or have they blown their collective loads on the back-to-back brilliance of Transatlanticism and Plans? Have success and happiness left them without inspiration? Given their unsteady arc thus far, I won't even hazard a guess. I feel like Death Cab For Cutie has gone back to their first three albums, except this time they have way more money and thus way higher production values behind them. I hope that Codes and Keys is a low point rather than another point on a gradual slope.

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