Thursday, 20 November 2008

Live Review: Death Cab For Cutie and Frightened Rabbit at Brixton Academy 19/11/08

Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard is all grown up, which is more than you can say for his average fan. At 32, Gibbard is still purporting Death Cab’s particular breed of teenage angst and hapless romantic pessimism. And the teenagers are still buying into it. ‘Narrow Stairs’, released earlier this year, marked their sixth album release since their debut, ‘Something About Airplanes’ back in 1998, ten years ago now. They must surely wonder at how their music still reaches an almost exclusively adolescent market – the only people above drinking age in the Brixton Academy tonight appear to be emo-sympathetic parents.

Support for the ‘Narrow Stairs’ tour comes from Selkirk’s ‘Frightened Rabbit’, easily one of the best bands to emerge in 2008. It was Gibbard and Nick Harmer of Death Cab who asked the Scottish fourpiece, personally, if they’d provide support on their UK tour, and it’s a well-judged selection. Scott Hutchison’s strained and aching brogue befits the acoustic of the well-worn theatre perfectly. Frightened Rabbit stick to uptempo numbers, but there’s still something brawny and raw about their sound that reverberates magnificently in the Academy, propulsed forward by percussion of unusual ferocity. Drummer Grant Hutchison inexplicably declares ‘drink stella!” before he leaves the stage at the end of the set – maybe that’s his secret.

It must be daunting following support as good as this, even for an act as well-established as Death Cab. Either that, or they’re not quite up for it tonight – ‘The Employment Pages’ is a poor opener, sounding pallid and empty in the stage lights reflected on the expectant, upturned faces of so many teenagers. Ben Gibbard is almost unrecognisable, skinny, lank-haired and spectacle-less, positioned stage-right rather than centre, perhaps to emphasise the parnership between him and lead guitarist Chris Walla.

If anyone shines tonight, it is neither of these two. Bassist Harmer is the only band member who seems genuinely enthused to be onstage, and a lot of the set is somewhat lacklustre – perhaps a pitfall of trying to recreate the fragile intimacy of Death Cab live. ‘We Have The Facts And We’re Voting Yes’ particularly suffers from this predicament; it almost sounds as though Gibbard is singing someone else’s song rather than his own as he trips over himself to get to the finish, while ‘Movie Script Ending’ is rushed, and loses all poignancy.

There are some moments that verge on a kind of polished melancholy, where the music really does seem to work. The anthemic ‘New Year’ is greeted with arms aloft, and set closer ‘Bixby Canyon Bridge’ is thick and taught with instrumental tension. Gibbard executes an acoustic ‘I Will Follow You Into The Dark’ mid-set, “for all the people hoping to find love,” and everyone sings along. It screams teenage campfire, but seems appropriate given surrounding company.

The encore is a generous four songs long, including a request in the shape of the lovely ‘What Sarah Said’, and they finish as per on ‘Transatlanticism’, distortion left to hang in the air as the band leave the stage. That Death Cab can draw such a prolific teenage following so many years since their inception is an impressive feat – they sit pretty in an emo-indie market that demands equal parts love-centric lyrical goo with credible amounts of guitars. Yet there is something particularly disheartening in witnessing such a prosaic rendition of songs that tend to teeter on glib, anyway. Gibbard has certainly endeared a new-generation of angst-ridden teenagers to Death Cab’s well-honed romantic existentialism, but whether the music he now produces still convinces himself seems slightly less certain.

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