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Stardom wish granted; still, Death Cab yearns

November 14, 2005|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

In the world of musical theater, there's something known as the "I Wish" song, in which the usually young hero or heroine mistily lays out his or her hopes and dreams for escaping whatever drudgery he/she is saddled with. "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is an archetype.

Death Cab for Cutie's concert at the Wiltern LG on Friday was pretty much one long string of "I Wish" songs, or at least the modern-rock equivalent. Leader Ben Gibbard's catalog is drenched in "ifs" and "I wishes" -- just not particularly urgent ones.

The most compelling art tends to come from those struggling with an existential void. Gibbard on Friday (the first of two Wiltern nights for the Seattle quartet) seemed more in an existential Starbucks -- and he would be fine with it if he could just rearrange some of the furniture a little.

"Orderly change" is what he calls for in the 2003 song "Title and Registration," sung early in Friday's show. That could well be his credo, even with its slight whiff of self-deprecation.

Gibbard has a flair for arrestingly odd imagery (in the opening "Marching Bands of Manhattan," he fantasizes about a musical troupe emerging from his mouth to express his feelings). And he can work up real passion, as when dealing with impending loss in "What Sarah Said" (from the new "Plans" album) and lost love in "Indoors" (from 2001's "The Photo Album"). But the overall sense is of vague, mild disaffection.

Apparently there are a lot of people who relate, though. The Wiltern shows are a result of indie star Death Cab's new mainstream presence, which is thanks in large part to being anointed the band of choice last year by the folks behind "The O.C."

With the exposure it received on the series, Death Cab has jumped with "Plans" to the major-label world via Atlantic Records.

The good news for fans is that career wish fulfillment has not taken any toll. Boyish and serene-voiced, Gibbard was unfailingly genial and humble Friday as he smiled and rocked side to side while playing guitar or piano. He seemed genuinely touched as fans shouted their devotion and sang along.

And the music was never less than inviting. Bassist Nick Harmer and drummer Jason McGerr made a sturdy rhythm section, and Chris Walla complemented Gibbard on guitar and keyboards. But only "Pictures," dating back to the group's mid-'90s early years, had real bite.

Death Cab, leading a current wave of Northwest rock along with Oregon's similarly toned Shins and Modest Mouse, will never supplant the intensity of the same region's Nirvana-led grunge scene in pop lore. But if Gibbard has any wish to write a musical, he has one key aspect down pat.

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