- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

During the first eight years of Death Cab for Cutie’s existence, the group established itself as America’s perennial indie band, a hardworking outfit whose music was omnipresent in underground circles but virtually unknown everywhere else. Guitarist Chris Walla produced every album himself, a stipulation that enabled Death Cab’s mix of melodic rock and brainy, articulate pop to evolve without external pressures. In short, the Seattle natives made up a self-contained unit, and their D.I.Y. approach to the industry earned a loyal following.

Of course, time changes everything. Death Cab for Cutie signed a major-label contract with Atlantic Records in 2004; two years later, the band earned a Grammy nomination for “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” a love song that introduced Ben Gibbard’s nuanced songwriting to a much wider audience. When Death Cab released its most recent album, “Narrow Stairs,” in May 2008, the record debuted at No. 1.

Rarely does an underground band enter the mainstream without losing some portion of its original audience. Death Cab for Cutie continues to espouse independent values, however, and the group’s audience has swelled as a result. Taking a brief rest in Seattle, bassist Nick Harmer reflects on how things have changed.

“These past few records have allowed us to tour overseas,” he says, having recently returned from an international tour that took the band through Japan and Australia. “On the road, your ‘home’ shrinks down to a backpack and a suitcase, and that routine is a learning process. We weren’t so healthy on our earlier tours, where every chance to go out on the road was a vacation from our day jobs. We’d really put ourselves through the wringer. As we grow older and this becomes our only career, we’ve learned how to take better care of ourselves. It allows for longevity.”

A similar maturation can be found on “Narrow Stairs,” whose 11 tracks touch upon focused pop-rock, tuneful character sketches and sonic experimentation. While finalizing the album’s selections, however, the musicians found themselves leaving many half-finished songs on the cutting-room floor.

“We finished ‘Narrow Stairs’ and just concentrated on those 11 songs on the record,” Mr. Harmer explains. “Then we returned to the other songs and realized how good they were.”

Accordingly, Death Cab for Cutie will release a five-song EP on Tuesday. “The Open Door” EP features four songs that took shape during the recording sessions for “Narrow Stairs” plus a demo version of a tune that made the final cut. The songs can be heard on Death Cab for Cutie’s springtime tour, which marks the band’s final outing in support of “Narrow Stairs.”

“We can’t wait to put these songs out into the world,” the bassist enthuses, “and we can’t wait to play them live. We haven’t played a proper headlining show in D.C. since we put out this album. It’s nice to be going back.”

Death Cab for Cutie, Cold War Kids and Ra Ra Riot will play a sold-out show at DAR Constitution Hall on Wednesday.

Hudson, Thicke launch joint tour

Two of the country’s biggest R&B vocalists, Jennifer Hudson and Robin Thicke, launched a co-headlining tour this week in Albany, N.Y. Before they announced their decision to work together, however, both musicians were supporters of each other’s work.

“I was instantly a fan when I first heard him,” says Miss Hudson, who discovered her partner’s talent after hearing his chart-topping single “Lost Without U” in 2006.

Meanwhile, Mr. Thicke came across Miss Hudson’s booming alto while viewing a preview for the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls.” “I was watching one of the E! News channels,” he recalls, “where they were talking about this movie that everybody was raving about. They showed a clip of her singing, and I was just blown away. It knocked me off the couch … and when I heard her sing in person in New York City, I was like, ‘I have to do something on her record. I have to. I have to put a song to that voice.’”

Both musicians issued strong, soulful albums in 2008. Miss Hudson’s self-titled release debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard Albums chart, while Mr. Thicke’s third studio effort, “Something Else,” peaked at No. 3. The vocalists will perform selections from those albums on tour, and the pair plans to collaborate after each singer has finished his or her respective set.

“We want to keep people guessing a little bit,” Miss Hudson explains, “so I think it’s probably best not to give it all away. But we plan on sharing the stage together, and I think it is something that people would want to see. We want to give the people what they want.”

Mr. Thicke seconds those sentiments. “I’ve been running around with my horns for about a year,” he says of his horn section, which lent a soulful strut to his ‘70s-inspired album. “So we’ve got our Earth, Wind & Fire swag down. I believe Jennifer is going to include the horns on a few of her songs, and I’m going to include her background singers on a few songs. We’re just going to try to do whatever it takes to give the people the very best show they can have.”

The Jennifer Hudson and Robin Thicke spring tour stops by DAR Constitution Hall on Sunday. The show commences at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are available via Ticketmaster.

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