Death Cab for Cutie : Plans

By Derek Wright

What conventional wisdom says to a major label is the beginning of the end for bands just below the commercial-radio radar.

Sign on the dotted line, and watch creative freedom drift to the wayside like a woman’s scarf in a 1940’s film, waving goodbye out a train window en route to mainstream audiences.

This is conventional wisdom because it happens – often.

For every act with major-label releases that surpass low-budget early recordings – The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Dandy Warhols, – there is Brendan Benson. Or Wilco. Or Liz Phair. Or countless acts with their best work on indie imprints.

Death Cab For Cutie’s fifth LP is the first not released on Barsuk Records. The jump to Atlantic Records would be a surprise had the quartet not been named on “The O.C.” so often. Not since Natalie Portman’s claim in “Garden State” that a Shins’ song could change your life has corporate entertainment so nauseatingly embraced music’s subculture.

Yet, major-label paranoia aside, “Plans” is what should be expected from the Washington natives.

It is a sprawling release of orchestrated pop structures (“Soul Meets Body”), delicate piano-fueled ballads that bleed into grandiose crescendos (“Different Names For The Same Thing”), atmospheric acoustics (“I Will Follow You Into The Dark”), with a deceivingly aggressive rhythm section (“Crooked Teeth”) and Ben Gibbard’s diary-like tales of love, insecurity and human-nature observations. With his most confident vocals to date, his voice is still gentle but never frail.

In fact, “Plans” echoes so familiarly, hardened listeners might suspect the band was urged not to deviate from prior albums.

If that is the case, the band received some good advice – no matter who it came from.