DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE with Nada Surf and the Long Winters at the Opera House (735 Queen East), tonight (Thursday, October 16). $15. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
It used to be that, in order to earn your stripes in the cooler-than-thou indie rock universe, you had to crank out staticky records on a shitty four-track in a suburban basement. Cred meant crappy production values and barely decipherable lyrics. That's the Dinosaur Jr.- and Sebadoh-ruled DIY universe I came of age in. So did Chris Walla, keyboard player and production whiz kid behind northwestern shoe-gazey popsters Death Cab for Cutie.
The Cuties are the proverbial indie rock poster band, so I'm a bit taken aback to hear Walla decry the lo-fi indie ethic.
"We've been in a world of downtown, punk rock, black leather, greasy-hair minimalism pretty much ever since the hair metal crown was given to Nirvana and the castle crumbled," Walla yawns over a cellphone, having just woken up at a tour pit stop.
"There were so many bombastic, badly put together records in the 80s. There were a few good songs, but they weren't produced with any sensitivity. Not since 1990 has it been 'cool' to make a record that's big and assertive, with different flavours and colours and dynamics.
"That's what we want to do, and I think this record is the first tangible step in that direction."
You'd have to ignore the successes of Radiohead's post-postmodernist inverted orchestral rock, the baroque neo-psychedelia of Spiritualized or even Belle & Sebastian's sprawling chamber folkstravaganzas to agree with Walla on that one. But it's a relief to know that at least one small-scale cult indie outfit isn't willing to sacrifice sound quality for underground hipster cred.
That said, DCFC's new Transatlanticism (Barsuk) disc isn't exactly a giant leap forward for the band. Yes, it's lush and beautifully arranged, with neat sonic details like the faux harpsichord accent on 50s-ish prom waltz Death Of An Interior Decorator, or the "men's choir" (really just a posse of indie dudes from other Barsuk bands) on the epic title track. And yes, Walla's a great producer who allows singer/songwriter Ben Gibbard's vocals to stand out in crisp relief against a dream pop backdrop.
But despite Walla's insistence that "this is the record we tried to make the last three times," the band (which includes bassist Nick Harmer and new drummer Jason McGerr) hasn't undergone that many changes in style or tone from the bittersweet melancholia of 2001's The Photo Album.
DCFC's bigger moves have occurred outside the music itself. Founder and primary songwriter Gibbard (who started the band as a solo project in 1997) caused a greater sensation this past year with his new group, the Postal Service, a recent electronic-tinged jewel in Sub Pop Records' indie rock crown. Skinsman McGerr is the latest in a long line of percussionists to stop the Cuties' nasty "drummer leak" habit.
And Walla's been tapped as a producer for cool up-and-comers like the Velvet Teen and Canuck nu-Cure rockers Hot Hot Heat. Production seems to come naturally to the dude, an unabashed music geek who spends 15 minutes trying to explain the difference between the new Super Audio technology and basic CD recording techniques.
He gets even more excited when he starts talking about his influences as a producer.
"U2 get a lot of shit, but goddammit, I think The Joshua Tree is a beautiful record! The songs are great, and the thing that makes them move from great to perfect to me is the fact they're in the perfect frame. With Or Without You has been played millions of times on the radio, but it still doesn't matter - whenever the song comes on, I stop and pay attention.
"Listen to that song and the way it builds. There's this crazy psychological mastering trick. The song starts really quickly and quietly, and that makes you turn up your stereo. When it ends it's just as loud as everything else on the album, but you've cranked the volume right at the beginning, so when you get to the part where it cracks open, it's huge! When that stuff's done well, it's just priceless."