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.