If a band is going to make a conspicuous point of touring with an orchestra (or an eight-piece string section going by that designation), it had better make it worthwhile, lest it come across as unnecessarily tricking up a live act in a rut. That was Death Cab for Cutie’s challenge Saturday at the Wang Theatre as it drafted the Magik*Magik Orchestra into service as a de facto fifth member, expanding on its role as a guest on the band's recent “Codes and Keys."
If the question was whether Magik*Magik added anything worthwhile, the answer was a resounding “maybe.” Early on, the orchestra jolted “Different Names for the Same Thing” with electricity as it heralded the full band’s arrival behind Ben Gibbard’s lone piano, and it ended with playful lines that fluttered upward. The strike-hold in “Bend to Squares” was heart-stopping. And the lovely “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” was played how it must be played, with acoustic guitar backed by gentle string pulls.
But beyond a handful of songs, Magik*Magik didn’t hold focus, which in a way proved that it was as integrated as the rest of the band. That led to songs such as “You Are a Tourist,” where the strings added another layer but not another dimension. Instead, it relied on the thrumming bass of Nick Harmer and a guitar riff that lifted the song when Gibbard and Chris Walla began playing in unison.
More often, though, Death Cab’s songs remained frustratingly earthbound. “Cath . . .’’ had a thrusting hook that should have caught the breath, but the dynamics simply were not sharp enough. Some songs were airy but driving (“Monday Morning,” meanwhile, was woody but driving), but plenty of others were lugubriously slow (like “No Joy in Mudville”), while “Hindsight” felt like it was dragging somehow. As if tacitly admitting its muted enthusiasm, the crowd as a whole was not moved to get to its feet and stay there until “Soul Meets Body” toward the end. Orchestra or no, Death Cab showed that magic sometimes just doesn’t come.
Low opened with its trademark meticulous softness, where every note played was like a held last note. Nonetheless, the band was strong but didn’t reach its usual heights, whether because it was someone else’s crowd or because 40 minutes didn’t give them as much room to breathe. And Low’s songs need to breathe.