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Death Cab for Cutie - Olympia Theatre, Dublin

Review: Death Cab for Cutie – Olympia Theatre, Dublin

With two decades in the music industry under their belt, Death Cab for Cutie’s staying power and dedication to their craft is undeniable. However, experimentation with the band’s sound and song-writing styling has resulted in mixed-feelings and lukewarm reception to their albums of the 2010s. The band’s most recent effort Thank You For Todayhas demonstrated the most agility in navigating Death Cab’s musical evolution of all their recent work. The guys have been touring non-stop to promote it.

I couldn’t help but get the feeling, though, that 20 years of musicianship—struggling to stay relevant in a sea of new artists, trying reinvent themselves and remain in the public’s mind—has taken its toll on front man Ben Gibbard and co. The band’s performance at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on Thursday night came across somewhat world-weary. While technically proficient, there was nothing irrefutably special about the performance. We could have been watching any Death Cab gig from any place or time in the band’s touring history. With such an impetus placed on live shows for the success and livelihood of bands these days, and with incredible developments that have been made in the production department, last night’s unremarkable performance doesn’t bode well for Death Cab for Cutie.

Touring as openers for the band’s European leg are New Zealand indie pop outfit The Beths. Comprised of front woman Elizabeth (Liz) Stokes and her mates Jon, Ben, and Adam, the Kiwi crooners released their debut full-length album Future Me Hates Me just last year. The album’s provocative cover art and ear-grabbing ditties has projected The Beths out of obscurity and onto the international stage. 

Working out the final kinks (and perhaps the nerves!) the openers were off to a shakey start as the only sound in the regal music hall was chatter and footsteps on the sticky floor as the band tuned in silence. Without a word of introduction, The Beths launched into their first tune a little unsure.

The sound of their brand of clean-cut pop rock rang through the room, if somewhat timidly performed. The winning background vocals and hand-clapped percussive devices were charming, however, and there was a certain authenticity to the group’s upright stance and awkward banter.

The Beths started to hit their stride and reached some vocal heights on contagious toe-tapper “Happy Unhappy”, a current pet favourite of the Radio6 set. While the tunes were full of hooks and flashy lures galore, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something of a formula being followed. The textbook faux-punk dynamics of scrubbed guitar and almost acapella bridge into a drum smashing chorus, alongside a lack of vocal variety, grew tired and predictable. With the titular “Future Me Hates Me” rolling into a fast-paced finale, shaking up a static stage and succeeding in warming up the growing crowd.

Having seen some photos of the stage show on Death Cab’s US tour, I expected a bit of a face-lift to the stage during the interval. Nothing of the sort occurred and the bandmates found their way onto an unadorned stage, dressed uniformly in dull shades of black, shrouded in fog. Evidently the pinnacle of this tour’s production budget was a smoke machine, which enrobed the band in hazy hues throughout the set. With ethereal tones emitting from one of four synthesizer/keyboards on stage, Death Cab easing into new album opener “I Dreamt We Spoke Again.” This introduced the smooth, modular sounds of Thank You For Today, which would feature heavily in their set. 

While some of the new material came off, like “Gold Rush” with a country twang and honky tonk piano–more aural atmosphere than song–while other offerings failed to impress. The set list was cleverly crafted and well-thought out, though, so as to sandwich new music with familiar crowd-pleasers such as “Long Division”“Title and Registration” and peppy “No Sunlight” spanning earlier records. I struggled to savour the sound of Gibbard’s vocals, though. I’m not sure whether to chalk it up the a levels issues or the singer’s lassitude, but it sounded like he was eating his words, failing to project.

Finally, there arose some visual intrigue as Ben ascended a platform to plunk out a melodic piano tune of “What Sarah Said” to a sizzling high hat beat, spot-lit and fading dramatically away from the mic at moments. The roll continued with a quite noteworthy selection from the new album in “60 & Punk” which succeeded in wrangling an emotive performance from the front man, obviously connecting with the introspective lyrics. 

The highlights of the gig were when Death Cab initiated an extended jam prefacing some tunes, providing sharp contrast with their otherwise hurried-along succession of the set. Leading into “I Will Possess Your Heart” there was an instrumental interlude as dark and urgent as an 80s thriller soundtrack, overall building a brilliant audio effect.

There were no real surprises to speak of as the real of the gig played out. Things concluded as you would expect, with an encore of some of the band’s biggest hits, starting with Gibbard’s solo rendering of the lump-in-throat heart-wrencher “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.” 

The fans in attendance clearly appreciated the showing, but the landslide ticket sales probably had something to do with the fact that Death Cab hadn’t played Ireland in seven years, and a significant eleven years had passed since their last headlining gig in the country. This band clearly still holds enough clout to sell out a stunning venue like the Olympia, but I can’t shake the feeling that there was missed potential this time around. I would love to see Death Cab for Cutie really shake things up if they hope to last another two decades after this!