Review: Death Cab for Cutie returns to an L.A. that almost broke them

Ben Gibbard performs at the Hollywood Bowl on July 12.

Ben Gibbard performs at the Hollywood Bowl on July 12.

(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
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Growing disillusioned about Los Angeles is one of the great themes of rock ‘n’ roll. “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Celluloid Heroes,” “L.A. Woman,” “Desperados Under the Eaves”: The list of records about the dashed allure of this town is a genre all its own.

To that, we can add “Kintsugi,” the eighth album from the Seattle band Death Cab for Cutie.

Death Cab is a defining success story for the early 2000s indie wave, one that reshaped commercial rock. At Death Cab’s headlining show at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday night (with punky charmer Mikal Cronin and tribal-noise experimentalists tUnE-yArDs opening), they proved that they’re still among the most creative, affecting guitar bands performing at their level.


But along their way from mopey romantics to platinum-selling rockers, Death Cab’s singer, Ben Gibbard, got reasonably famous, married the actor Zooey Deschanel and set up a new home here.

The marriage lasted just three years, and soon after, Death Cab’s founding guitarist, Chris Walla, left the band as well. Gibbard, understandably, moved back to Seattle.

So now that he has a whole new record infused with bad vibes from L.A., how would Gibbard treat his band’s first major headline show of this new era here at our most incomparably beautiful concert venue? Quite graciously, it turns out.

We haven’t seen poison-pen-to-L.A. Ben Gibbard in a decade (famously, on brutal little songs such as 2001’s “Why You’d Want To Live Here” and 2003’s “Tiny Vessels”). A few singles from “Kintsugi” dealt with his disappointing recent stint here, and they were some of the night’s best.

“No Room In Frame” made it clear that this Seattleite belongs somewhere gloomier with the lyric “How can I stay in the sun when the rain flows all through my veins?” On “Black Sun,” real-life allusions came easily in a chorus of “How could something so fair be so cruel?” But Gibbard’s strong melodies and imagery of L.A. decay (“death upon the vine” and “a desert veiled in pavement”) made it more than just a breakup song.

On the muscular, post-punky “The Ghosts of Beverly Drive,” he drives around town to “return to the scene of these crimes, where the hedgerows slowly wind.” Gibbard imagined, like so many other songwriters passing through, L.A.’s destruction as a metaphor for feeling leveled: “If you let me be your skyline, I’ll let you be the wave / that reduces me to rubble, but looked safe from far away.”


But Sunday’s show wasn’t all laments about this town ransacking yet another sensitive artist. After all, Death Cab for Cutie are still rock stars, and among the last big, inventive guitar bands we have left.

“No Sunlight” and “Doors Unlocked and Open” were tough, hip-swinging rock songs that proved Death Cab’s slightly precious reputation is undeserved in 2015. Walla’s charismatic guitar work was missed onstage, but two new touring members (Dave Depper and Zac Rae) fleshed out new synthesizer and guitar textures that made even extremely old songs such as 1997’s “President of What?” feel refreshed.

“I never thought I’d be playing that song at the Hollywood Bowl,” Gibbard said, grinning at the sold-out amphitheater. “The Smell, maybe.” For a town that’s been his nemesis for as long as he’s been a songwriter, Gibbard seemed genuinely happy to be back here again.

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