CONSTITUTION HALL in Washington, D.C., has a tendency to drown its opening acts. Outside the stretching acoustics of the cavernous auditorium, the people coming out for shows in this seated venue have a notorious habit of not showing up until they’re good and ready. Maybe it’s the assurance of reserved seating, an unfamiliarity with the opener, or just an upper-crust leaning Washington concertgoer that doesn’t want to let those seven o’clock dinner reservations go to waste, but I’ve witnessed the best bands of our time destroyed by laziness. And it’s always a crying shame.
Lack of attention only delays the inevitable because whether breaking up or making out, the little hipsters will be doing it to the sliding sounds of Ra Ra Riot for the next few years. No slight to the Vampire Weekend-leaning vocals of Milo Bonacci and company, but a sweet-voiced, cello-heavy rock band just begs to be inserted into the soundtrack of your favorite real or small-screen emotionally climatic moments. There’s a grace and poise to their sweeping sound, and they effortless filled the cavernous hall with melancholy melodies.
While Ra Ra Riot may be soundtrack-ready, the dark brooding tones of Cold War Kids hardly fit into the Gossip Girl/Grey's Anatomy aesthetic. Think Cold War Kids, and it’s hard to disassociate the California rockers from the yelping, wine glass-banging, stripped-down rock of their debut, Robbers and Cowards. The music seems to beg for smoky bars, drunken crowds and loud sing-alongs—not screaming Gibbard-ites and cavernous halls. But on last year’s Loyalty to Loyalty, Nathan Willet and company grew up.
To the daydreams of Ra Ra Riot, Cold War Kids were a vicious bad dream. Performing only in the shadows, the quartet blasted through any sweetness and ripped straight into the set. The bitterness of “Hang Me Out to Dry” got turned into a fist pumping anthem, but it was in the tracks from the new album that the band truly shone. The addition of the piano adds an eerie and melodic layer to their often sparce textures and provides a more fitting canvass for Willet’s raw, scarred voice. When the drone of “I’ve Seen Enough” started, Willet began wailing “How’s it going to feel when summer ends?” and the drums kicked in hard, it felt like you had space/time warped to a 1997 Radiohead show. The band may have risen with blog hype, but there is nothing niche or trend-fading with the Cold War Kids. The sound is growing, the energy is real, and these guys will last.
Like the long-lasting, always-loveable Death Cab for Cutie.
Few bands have made the jump from indie to mainstream as easily as Death Cab, and while the crowds and venues may look different, it’s still very much the same band. It’s a conscious effort to keep rooted in their past, rather than just relying on the Atlantic Records-audience’s familiarity with Plans and Narrow Stairs. The now super-slim Gibbard—no one mentioned the health benefits of love—led off with the thunderous sweep of “The New Year,” and spent seven songs before anything from the newest disc emerged. Even from close to the stage, the sound seemed muted, leaving Gibbard’s voice lost in the mix from time to time. But it’s not like that hurt the sing-along ready crowd’s feelings: each song (with the exception of anything from before Transatlanticism) received the chanting, dancing and sappy smile treatment.
Maybe it was the familiarity with what to expect live, but natural crescendo points seemed to have been eliminated from the set. Take “I Will Possess Your Heart”: the underrated track builds for a solid three minutes before finally breaking out into what Gibbard dryly called “the song when you love someone so much, and they don’t know you exist.” It’s a song that seems perfect for something with a distorted beginning, and angry conclusion. Bixby Canyon Bridge, anyone?
But just when the song’s building into a throbbing, blinding conclusion, it ends, the volume goes down, the acoustic comes out and Ben’s back to singing about how that even if heaven and hell don’t want you, he’s going to be there in the dark. Oh, and don’t forget the awkward pause before the last chorus where whatever emotion has been created will inevitably be ruined by someone with a deep wish and a loud voice. (This time, it was “I love you Ben!” – a little better than the “f— yeah!” from the back of the room when I saw Gibbard solo.)
You never walk out of a Death Cab show mad. The band makes the type of comfort music that will always have a place in the emotional memories of this generation. Rooting the live shows firmly in the past ensures that even the oldest Death Cab fans will still have at least one perfect flashback triggered. But there has to be something more than just a scrapbook of melodic memories, and while Gibbard, Walla and company can craft a pop song like no one’s business, the heights of “Bixby” or the anthems of “Transatlanticism” are rarely matched. This is one cycle that just needs to end.
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