The little alternative band that could march on and on.
Ian Winwood 2011
The rise and rise of Washington State’s Death Cab for Cutie is a phenomenon that has occurred largely without comment. A group that are not particularly photogenic, playing songs that tend to whisper rather than scream, the exquisitely understated quartet have staked their claim on the mainstream without much of the mainstream actually noticing. Transatlanticism, the group’s fourth album and last on an independent label (Barsuk), may have only scraped the US Billboard top 100 in 2003, but just five years later, with Narrow Stairs, the group had itself a number one CD in their home country.
DCFC may not be quite as popular in the UK as in the US but, as with fellow north-westerners The Decemberists, when America hums a tune the rest of the world usually begins singing along. Luckily enough, Codes and Keys, the group’s seventh album and first for three years, is a set busy with fine songs. "Cars on the freeway, tempting a clean break / [but] there’s nowhere left to go," sings mainstay Ben Gibbard on the achingly atmospheric Home is a Fire, as his group’s music shimmers around him. But while the band’s tone here is of a sparse and controlled stripe – Codes & Keys is less driven by guitars than previous albums, allowing space for piano lines and broad washes from violins and cellos – rarely does it come without some kind of edge or sense of heavily clouded atmosphere. This is more Colour of Spring-era Talk Talk than it is Coldplay.
The best alternative bands who make their way to the mainstream do so by making the mainstream take at least a few steps in their direction. Metallica did this, as did Green Day. And while there is no song on Codes and Keys that a parent would threaten to throw a teenager out of the family home for playing, nontheless this is an album that is not quick to give up its rewards. As such it is an understated and subtlety magnificent pleasure.