If you want to know the state of indie rock in 2007, watch Ben Gibbard perform on a college campus.
The Death Cab for Cutie and the Postal Service frontman is arguably the genre's apotheosis right now. He's got impeccable aw-shucks pop smarts, a gold record with each of his major projects and is on the speed dial of practically every music supervisor in town.
Yet his solo show on Thursday at UCLA's Royce Hall (a formal and seated venue) revealed an unpleasant truth about scruffy, agreeably low-stakes guitar-rock meant to change your life: Indie-pop is officially the new frat-rock. Throughout Gibbard's career-spanning set, the college-age crowd screamed song requests, heckled one another and sang along motionlessly with Gibbard's razor-fine lyrics about the romantic implications of how the human eye inverts the image of his lover. The hall felt like a dorm party come 4 a.m.
The reason is simple. Gibbard is in the precarious situation of having mastered earnest, rewardingly twisty pop while projecting a blank slate of every-guy charisma that lets people take whatever they need from his songs, and nothing more.
His solo version of Death Cab's "405" was a perfect sliver of a road-trip tune, full of the minutiae of navigating long freeways and testy relationships; and "I'll Follow You Into the Dark," from the band's most recent album, "Plans," overcame a few lyrical groaners on the strength of its touching melody and fearless look at death.
But these songs, when stripped to Gibbard and a single guitar or piano, only underscored how essential Death Cab's guitarist-producer Chris Walla and Postal Service's electronica wizard Jimmy Tamborello have been to Gibbard's success in either band. Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst could successfully jump from orchestral grandeur to bloodletting intimacy on their strength of personality and melodic gifts. Gibbard has to bank entirely on the latter.
A surprisingly not-atrocious piano cover of Nirvana's "All Apologies" and a cameo by Jenny Lewis on the Postal Service's "Nothing Better" were reminders of how riveting star power can be. Gibbard doesn't have it, but one suspects that his songs will live on, albeit sort of anonymously, in freshman dorms for all time.