When rock bands start to dabble with string arrangements, implying the commingling of "low" and "high" art, things go one of two ways.
Ideally, the rock act's music finds a deepening of its emotional and harmonic content at the hands of smartly arranged strings. Failing that, both the rock band and the classical musicians end up looking and sounding like they showed up at the wrong party.
Happily, before a sold-out Kleinhans Music Hall on Tuesday, Death Cab for Cutie offered a lesson in the fusion of indie rock and strings we've come to know as "chamber pop." Over the course of a two-hour, 24-song set, the Seattle quartet, with the help of San Francisco's string octet, the Magik*Magik Orchestra, took the assembled on a tour of its 15-year career, its music ably sweetened and deepened by the strings, beneath the baton of conductor/arranger Minna Choi.
Led by singer/guitarist/keyboardist Ben Gibbard, Death Cab specializes in angular, edgy alt-rock, a sort of heady, slightly nerdy hybrid of R.E.M., Television and Joy Division. Its finest music is transcendent, leaning toward the grandiose and anthemic, and steering clear of the cloying tendencies of arena-pop by its innate strangeness. Adding strings to this formula simultaneously underscored the music's art-rock tendencies, and pushed the already yearning-infused sound up through the roof of Kleinhans and toward points unknown.
Following a downbeat but emotionally compelling opening set from "slowcore" outfit Low -- a favorite of Death Cab's, it was later revealed -- the show commenced with a stirring ensemble cadenza from the Magik*Magik Orchestra. Gibbard then arrived on stage and took a seat behind the keyboard. He led with the bummed-out beauty of "Passenger Seat" and was joined by his bandmates for the evening's first full-blown workout, the resplendently strange "Different Names for the Same Thing."
What was readily apparent by the end of "Different" was the subtly muscular virtuosity of the Death Cab rhythm section, drummer Jason McGerr and bassist Nick Harmer. Such precision, such command of time and groove, did these two sympathetic musicians provide during the evening's most powerful pieces that they all but overshadowed the supporting colors and contours offered by Gibbard and guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist Chris Walla.
"Title and Registration," for example, was relentlessly propelled by McGerr's John Bonham-esque drum figure -- a fat, precise, clockwork groove that ably abetted Gibbard's limited but spirited vocal range and added an extra dimension to the angular chord progression and edgy melody.
Later, the roiling 6/8 middle section of "What Sarah Said" was urged toward a strange alt-rock/psychedelia/trance aspect by McGerr's seemingly effortless blend of strict time and eminent feel. This was stunning, in a word.
Choi and her charges were never lost amidst all of this ear candy. The sound in the venerably, acoustically pristine Kleinhans acted as an additional band member, warmly embracing the pristinely mixed ensemble sound and adding a cathedral-like natural reverb of the sort that can raise the hair on the arms of the listener.
It wasn't a problem to hear exactly what every musician on the stage was doing -- no small feat, but in fact, an occurrence that touches the hem of some divine garment. This just plain does not happen very often when electric and acoustic instruments and an amplified drum set meet and mingle.
An air of mild formality clung to the set proper, with the four Death Cab men clad in all-black, pressed and tucked attire, as if downplaying any indie-rock shabbiness in deference to the presence of the strings. This was never to the detriment of the show, it should be noted, but rather lent to the air of "otherness" already established by the music itself.
Things did indeed loosen up when, after a flawless 17-song main set, the band returned for a lengthy encore section. Everyone seemed more relaxed, particularly Gibbard, who noted that playing a show where ushers politely escorted fans to their seats was an anomaly for a indie-rock band used to playing general admission gigs.
As rock experiments go, this was a wildly successful one. Choi's subtly intricate string arrangements gave wings to the Death Cab sound, making for an evening of powerful, passionate music.
Death Cab for Cutie
With Magik*Magik Orchestra.
Tuesday evening in Kleinhans Music Hall.