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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard at Largo at the Coronet

October 24, 2009|Mikael Wood

"We're a new band as of a few hours ago," Jay Farrar announced Thursday night from the stage of Largo at the Coronet, and he wasn't kidding: Thursday's show, the first of two in L.A., marked the premiere public performance by the Son Volt frontman with Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. The songwriters, who were also scheduled to play the El Rey Friday night, met in San Francisco in 2007 to record music for the soundtrack of "One Fast Move or I'm Gone," a documentary film about Jack Kerouac's novel "Big Sur." After that original collaboration proved fruitful, they spun the project into a Kerouac-inspired album, also titled "One Fast Move or I'm Gone," which arrived in stores this past Tuesday.

Though Death Cab is known (and adored) for its melancholy indie-rock sound, Gibbard is an experienced dabbler: One of his most popular recordings is the 2003 debut by his electro-pop side project, the Postal Service. On "One Fast Move" he takes up Farrar's no-frills alt-country approach with an ease that suggests he's got hard drives full of unreleased folk songs sitting around his house. Nothing about the dry, stripped-down music makes you think that Farrar is a big Death Cab for Cutie fan.

That was the case as well at Largo, where Gibbard and Farrar were backed up by Death Cab bassist Nick Harmer, Son Volt multi-instrumentalist Mark Spencer and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. Gibbard sang lead in a handful of songs from "One Fast Move," most memorably in the title track, in which he drew a comparison between Kerouac's lost-highway wanderlust and the itinerant lifestyle of a touring musician. But it all felt like a product of Farrar's rather bloodless vision of hardscrabble Americana; we definitely weren't getting the Gibbard who wrote "Meet Me on the Equinox" for the new "Twilight" movie.

That's fine -- even vampires need a nap now and then. Yet the outfit's hourlong set Thursday seemed also to lack much of the spirit of Kerouac, who famously aimed to capture in his writing something visceral and lifelike. The problem wasn't one of musicianship; Spencer, in particular, put in terrific work on electric guitar, organ and pedal steel. Indeed, if Farrar hadn't announced that this was the group's first show together, you'd have had no reason to suspect it.

But expert players can only apply a limited amount of shine to material that starts out dull, and most of the songs they played at Largo simply failed to channel the psychological and emotional drama of "Big Sur," which charts the author's mental breakdown during a stay in a Bixby Canyon cabin. They fared better in a pair of closing covers not featured on "One Fast Move" -- first Bob Dylan's "Absolutely Sweet Marie," then "Old Shoes (And Picture Postcards)" by Tom Waits. By that point, though, the temptation to make a fast move of one's own had grown pretty strong.

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