Wel­come to his school of indie rock

Ben Gib­bard has the crowd danc­ing to his earnest, twisty pop dur­ing a show at UCLA.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - By Au­gust Brown

If you want to know the state of indie rock in 2007, watch Ben Gib­bard per­form on a col­lege cam­pus.

The Death Cab for Cu­tie and the Postal Ser­vice front­man is ar­guably the genre’s apoth­e­o­sis right now. He’s got im­pec­ca­ble aw-shucks pop smarts, a gold record with each of his ma­jor projects and is on the speed dial of prac­ti­cally ev­ery mu­sic su­per­vi­sor in town.

Yet his solo show on Thurs­day at UCLA’s Royce Hall (a for­mal and seated venue) re­vealed an un­pleas­ant truth about scruffy, agree­ably low-stakes gui­tar­rock meant to change your life: Indie-pop is of­fi­cially the new frat-rock. Through­out Gib­bard’s ca­reer-span­ning set, the col­legeage crowd screamed song re­quests, heck­led one an­other and sang along mo­tion­lessly with Gib­bard’s ra­zor-fine lyrics about the ro­man­tic im­pli­ca­tions of how the hu­man eye in­verts the im­age of his lover. The hall felt like a dorm party come 4 a.m.

The rea­son is sim­ple. Gib­bard is in the pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing mas­tered earnest, re­ward­ingly twisty pop while pro­ject­ing a blank slate of ev­ery-guy charisma that lets peo­ple take what­ever they need from his songs, and noth­ing more.

His solo ver­sion of Death Cab’s “405” was a per­fect sliver of a road-trip tune, full of the minu­tiae of nav­i­gat­ing long free­ways and testy re­la­tion­ships; and “I’ll Fol­low You Into the Dark,” from the band’s most re­cent album, “Plans,” over­came a few lyri­cal groan­ers on the strength of its touch­ing melody and fear­less look at death.

But th­ese songs, when stripped to Gib­bard and a sin­gle gui­tar or pi­ano, only un­der­scored how es­sen­tial Death Cab’s gui­tarist-pro­ducer Chris Walla and Postal Ser­vice’s elec­tron­ica wizard Jimmy Tam­borello have been to Gib­bard’s suc­cess in ei­ther band. El­liott Smith or Conor Oberst could suc­cess­fully jump from or­ches­tral grandeur to blood­let­ting in­ti­macy on their strength of per­son­al­ity and melodic gifts. Gib­bard has to bank en­tirely on the lat­ter.

A sur­pris­ingly not-atro­cious pi­ano cover of Nir­vana’s “All Apolo­gies” and a cameo by Jenny Lewis on the Postal Ser­vice’s “Noth­ing Bet­ter” were re­minders of how riv­et­ing star power can be. Gib­bard doesn’t have it, but one sus­pects that his songs will live on, al­beit sort of anony­mously, in fresh­man dorms for all time.

au­gust.brown@la­times.com

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