By the time the Internet helped take indie music mainstream, My Morning Jacket and Death Cab for Cutie were already there. Louisville’s My Morning Jacket grew from spaced-out alt-country noodlers to heavy-jamming bros playing skyscraping songs highlighted by Jim James’s equally immense vocals. Death Cab was the musical inverse, playing inward-gazing confessionals with frontman Ben Gibbard chirping sad-sack laments over exquisitely textured atmospheric indie-pop.
Both bands took the slow road to stardom, touring and releasing albums while getting a few assists from famous fans — My Morning Jacket’s 2003 breakthrough “It Still Moves” was released on Dave Matthews’s ATO label, while a Death Cab mention was about as common as a love triangle on the hit teen drama “The O.C.”
Their success also foretold some current music trends. MMJ became the face of megafestival Bonnaroo and predicted the merger of jam band and indie fan bases, while Death Cab helped make the world safe for all varieties of pretty indie music.
And both bands are now famous enough that they don’t have to worry about the fickle nature of the scene their followers have inherited. Neither band’s new album would make an unknown a Next Big Thing, but both are good enough to keep their careers charging forward.
Death Cab for Cutie’s “Codes and Keys” is more rewarding; on its seventh album, the band is finally able to balance trying new ideas with keeping its identity. Gibbard will forever sing like the narrator of every long-defunct LiveJournal, but just a few minor changes make the band sound more vital. “Doors Unlocked and Open” glides on a hypnotic motorik beat, its mechanical precision a nice contrast to the all-too-human emotions in Death Cab songs.
“St. Peter’s Cathedral” pulses with all sorts of flickering sounds that bubble to the surface and give it an understated sense of majesty. It’s reminiscent of the sonic splendor of Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” and little moments such as this crop up throughout “Codes and Keys,” thanks to painstaking production work by Death Cab’s guitarist/sound architect, Chris Walla.
Gibbard sounds less depressed than ever — perhaps because he realized he’s in a popular rock band and married to actress/singer Zooey Deschanel — but still specializes in status-update fare: “When there’s a burning in your heart / An endless yearning in your heart / Build it bigger than the sun / Let it grow, let it grow,” he purrs on “You Are a Tourist.” The sentiment is nothing new, but at least it sounds fresh, which is why “Codes and Keys” should make new listeners and old fans swoon.
The title of My Morning Jacket’s “Circuital” seems to hint at a return to the band’s original sound, but really it just means that the ill-advised, undercooked glam-funk of 2008’s “Evil Urges” has mercifully been eliminated. MMJ is a live band at its core, and the first two tracks on “Circuital” will surely be the centerpieces of many concerts to come.
A rubbery synth line helps opener “Victory Dance” slither along, its slightly sinister tone enhanced by James’s mystical one-liners. His voice has always been the band’s greatest asset: a high-pitched warble that can elegantly float above or cut through whatever din is created. When he simply howls the words “setting sun” repeatedly, he conveys a sense of ominous heaviness.
The title track is closer to the classic MMJ sound — a seven-minute scorcher centered on some lost Allman Brothers Band acoustic guitar riff that features some serious solos and James bellowing with enough power to reach the back of any amphitheater.
The band doesn’t really try to match these twin peaks, and the rest of the 10 songs trade off between minimally adorned ballads (“Wonderful,” “Movin’ Away”), upbeat rockers (“First Light,” “The Day Is Coming”) and the occasional silly idea (the kids-chorus misfire “Holdin’ On to Black Metal”). But even that one might sound righteous in concert.
My Morning Jacket: “Circuital,” “Victory Dance,” “Wonderful”;
Death Cab for Cutie: “Doors Unlocked and Open,” “St. Peter’s Cathedral,” “Some Boys”
Death Cab for Cutie performs Friday at the 9:30 Club. That show is
sold out. The band also performs Aug. 7 at Merriweather Post Pavilion. My Morning Jacket performs Aug. 12 at Merriweather Post Pavilion.