Extolling their signature blend of emotive rock music in workmanlike fashion, Death Cab for Cutie proved surprisingly well suited to the grand environs of the Nokia Theater. Words like “confessional,” “cloying” and “earnest” may aptly describe Ben Gibbard’s songwriting, but not the epic sound created by Death Cab’s live show. Chris Walla’s guitar bled swaths of Edge-like reverb, while Nich Harmer’s bass and Jason McGerr’s drums interlocked into a precise and powerful rhythm section. Gibbard has grown comfortable in his own skin as a rock ‘n’ roll frontman, and he carries himself with a swagger that almost contradicts the blatantly intimate nature of his lyrics.
As a pseudo-Gregorian chant blared through the house PA, the band entered the stage and immediately kicked into “Bixby Canyon Bridge,” the chugging opener from this year’s “Narrow Stairs,” which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard top 200. In construction, the song is far more interesting and engaging than the group’s earlier material, with sweeping dynamic shifts and some of Gibbard’s best lyrics to date. “Long Division,” another “Narrow Stairs” song, proved to be the evening’s highlight — its tuneful guitar riff and lean, almost post-punk instrumentation provided a welcome contrast to the dive-bombing emo rockers and epic ballads more typical throughout the set.
The evolution of Death Cab’s sound and the sheer superiority of its newer material attests to a remarkably rare sense of creative integrity among the band members — hardly ever seen in mainstream rock bands. Gibbard is pushing himself as a writer and challenging his audience to follow, and though the Los Angeles crowd often seemed bewildered and unenthusiastic during the “Narrow Stairs” material, there was a sense that the band didn’t care. They were resolute in their desire not to give concertgoers instant gratification — at least, not until the end of the evening, when Gibbard unveiled his acoustic guitar for a host of older songs.