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Death Cab picks up steam

Death Cab for Cutie is full of surprises. The quartet's are subtle rather than earthshaking dramas: little musical risks that produce unexpected moments that transform rock tunes from merely appealing to soul stirring.

On the band's new album, ''Plans," a lush love song ends suddenly with the blunt plink of a piano note. Fans of Death Cab's melancholic singer and songwriter Ben Gibbard won't be surprised that the relationship described in the song ends badly or that Gibbard -- himself a surprise heartthrob -- has dreamed up such a quietly devastating aural metaphor for the arc of a romance.

The question now is whether Death Cab for Cutie's sweetly skewed indie rock will fly in the mainstream. ''Plans," in stores today, is the Bellingham, Wash., group's major-label debut. Based on the remarkable sales, by indie standards, for Death Cab's 2003 Barsuk album, ''Transatlanticism" (more than 300,000) and for Gibbard's electronic side project, the Postal Service -- which has moved an astonishing 600,000 units of its 2003 Sub Pop release, ''Give Up" -- Atlantic Records snapped up the band last year. A Death Cab-obsessed character on the hit television show ''The O.C." has already introduced the band to an audience that stretches far beyond the typical indie cult following.

More important, though, Death Cab for Cutie has made no sacrifices to angle for commercial viability. ''Plans" sounds like a plumped-up, fleshed-out sequel to ''Transatlanticism," full of delectable chord changes, plain-spoken poetry, and intoxicating production from the group's guitarist, Chris Walla. It's the rare band that evokes both the swooning balladry of Coldplay and the abstract textures of Sigur Ros, but Death Cab has made an album with just that balance of accessibility and adventure.

Unfortunately, the first single, ''Soul Meets Body," a disco tune with strummed guitars and no hooks, is hardly the album's finest moment. That honor could go to any number of the disc's bountiful pleasures: ''Marching Bands of Manhattan," a master class in gorgeous, unfussy pop craft, or wistful ''Summer Skin," where a bass line is the rubbery soul of the song, stretching to escape a stiff marching drum that signals the inevitable end of the season, and the romance.

Gibbard, once the spurned lover in his songs, now celebrates his flaws as a boyfriend in the kind of literal terms that makes heroes of pale troubadours. ''I built you a home in my heart/ With rotten wood . . ." he explains in ''Crooked Teeth," and ''The memories of me/ Will seem more like bad dreams/ Just a series of blurs/ Like I never occurred," he coldly assures the woman he's left in ''Someday You Will Be Loved."

When he's not depositing farewell notes on bedside tables, Gibbard is loving desperately and completely. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and the sucking of breath on the folk gem ''I Will Follow You Into the Dark," Gibbard declares : ''If heaven and hell decide/ That they both are satisfied/ Illuminate the no's on their vacancy signs/If there's no one beside you/ When your soul embarks/Then I'll follow you into the dark."

One imagines that ''Plans" will inspire a similar sort of devotion.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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