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LISTENING STATION: Death Cab deciphers new ‘Codes’

After long hiatus, My Morning Jacket tries on a more consistent ‘Circuital’

- - Monday, May 30, 2011

"Codes and Keys"

Death Cab for Cutie

Atlantic

There's always been something bookish and boyish about Death Cab for Cutie. Even after their first platinum-selling album, "Plans," pulled them out of the underground and into the mainstream, they still sounded like champions of the underdog, making the sort of literate, forlorn music that appealed to sensitive poetry grads and heartbroken 20-somethings. "These guys may be rock stars," the band's melancholia seemed to say, "but they're just as down in the dumps as everyone else."

Well, that's no longer the case. Singer Ben Gibbard, the most tender-hearted frontman this side of Conor Oberst, married actress Zooey Deschanel two years ago. He also quit drinking and slimmed himself down to appropriate rock star slenderness, wiping out most of his insecurities in the process.

"Codes and Keys" tells the story of how Mr. Gibbard got his groove back, featuring 11 songs that are far sunnier than the band's earlier work. The proof is in the lyrics. "Narrow Stars," the group's 2008 release, featured song titles like "No Sunlight" and "You Could Do Better Than Me." Trading despondence for happiness, Mr. Gibbard fills the new record with brighter sentiments, urging listeners to "Stay Young, Go Dancing" during the final track and singing about his nostalgia-loving wife (sample lyric: "She may be young, but she only likes old things") on "Monday Morning."

His bandmates aren't averse to change, either. Percussionist Jason McGerr sits the occasional measure out, allowing an electronic drum machine to do the work for him, and the band's two guitarists take a less-is-more approach, favoring sparse riffs that echo their way into nothingness before the next riff is played. Tying everything together is an electronic swirl of keyboards and synthesizers, which provide soothing white noise one minute and washes of Brian Eno-esque ambience the next.

Fans of the Postal Service, Mr. Gibbard's long-dormant side project, will draw easy connections between that band and this album, both of which explore a mix of pop, rock and indie electronica. "Codes and Keys" is a big-budget release, though, and it combines those genres on a much wider canvas, with the added benefit of studio wizardry and production gloss. Fortunately, there's enough solid songwriting at the heart of each track to warrant the ornate presentations.

Years ago, Death Cab for Cutie made the biggest splash of their career with the acoustic ballad "I Will Follow You Into the Dark." With "Codes and Keys," it looks as though they've finally located some daylight.

"Circuital"

My Morning Jacket

ATO Records

Also making a return to the mainstream - albeit the outer fringes of the mainstream, where a band can release songs about peanut butter pudding without alienating its fanbase - are the boys in My Morning Jacket.

"Circuital" brings an end to the three-year absence that followed the band's last outing, "Evil Urges." Spending several years away from the canvas has allowed My Morning Jacket to paint their trippy, screwball sound collages with more deliberate strokes, correcting some of the errors that turned "Evil Urges" into a mixed bag of hits and misses.

The guys still experiment with new sounds - "Holdin' on to Black Metal" combines funky horns, a children's choir, and heavy guitar fuzz - but they stick closer to the psychedelic Southern rock that launched their band in the late 1990s.

Young winner renews aging franchise

"American Idol" has crowned its first country-singing champion since Carrie Underwood. Scotty McCreery won the competition Wednesday evening, besting another country vocalist - runner-up Lauren Alaina - with a combination of "aw-shucks" charm and preternaturally deep vocals.

It's been years since "American Idol" spawned a genuine superstar. Lee DeWyze, last year's winner, has only sold approximately 135,000 copies of his debut album. The previous season's champ, Kris Allen, recorded the lowest opening week album sales of any "Idol" victor.

To increase their chances of finding another hit-maker, the show's producers made several changes this season, including lowering the age restriction to 15 years old. They may have found what they're looking for in Mr. McCreery, a clean-cut high-schooler whose style of music - straightforward country, like George Strait and Travis Tritt - is one of the industry's most reliable cash cows.

It's your ACM Award to lose, Scotty.