The Seth Effect

The revolution is coming, and it listens to Death Cab for Cutie.

Seth Cohen is a teenager who lives with his parents in Orange County, Calif. A lanky, awkwardly cute kid with curly brown Jew-fro hair, he likes video games, comic books and sarcasm. Seth is shy and bad at sports, cries during sappy movies, and doesn't know anything about cars or power tools. Females confuse him; the jocks call him gay. He tells his secrets to a plastic toy horse named Captain Oats, which he keeps by his bedside. And he listens to Death Cab for Cutie. Constantly.

Unfortunately for any girl who ever lusted after the adorable loser sitting alone in the high-school cafeteria, Seth Cohen doesn't actually exist. He's a character on the Fox prime-time teensploitation hit The O.C. Played by 24-year-old Adam Brody, Seth has unexpectedly become the show's chief heartthrob, stealing the leading-man thunder away from brooding bad boy Ryan Atwood (played in perfect stoic James Dean/Luke Perry fashion by Benjamin McKenzie). Ryan spends most of his screen time sulking, taking off his shirt and punching people, while Seth gets all the sharp one-liners.

Death Cab for Cutie is Seth Cohen's favorite band. He's got a Death Cab poster on his bedroom wall, plays Death Cab music in the car, gives Death Cab CDs to girls he likes. Of course, unlike Seth, Death Cab really does exist, and the band is playing the Crystal Ballroom on Wednesday (coincidentally, The O.C.'s first season will be coming to a close that same night). Don't be surprised if most of the audience looks like they could be Seth's classmates. The more popular the character has become, the more fans the band has gained.

Hush, haters. This is a good thing. A very good thing.

Not that long ago, Death Cab was strictly the property of indie-rock insiders. Who else would know about this little Seattle group that recorded for local independent label Barsuk, didn't tour with big-name acts, wasn't hyped by the press, and never got played on commercial radio? In the glory days of nu-metal and teen pop, a spacey guitar band specializing in heartbroken odes to lost loves would have never stood a chance, regardless. The quartet released a couple of excellent albums, Something about Airplanes (1999) and We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes (2000), plus an excellent EP, Forbidden Love (2000), steadily gaining fans from the rock underground. But after the not-so-excellent The Photo Album (2001), many (this writer included) dismissed Death Cab as has-been water-treaders.

Last year, the band proved the naysayers wrong. First came the Postal Service, singer-guitarist Benjamin Gibbard's collaboration with producer Jimmy Tamborello, which yielded the synth-pop masterpiece Give Up (sitting pretty at No. 7 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums more than 14 months after it was released). And then, in October, came Transatlanticism, Death Cab's fourth and best album yet (currently No. 13 on the same chart). Gibbard's starry-eyed poetry seemed to have expanded in scope--no longer just peeking out the bedroom window, but gazing at the entire sky. The guitars were bigger and dreamier than ever before, crashing like waves against rocks on the explosive opener, "The New Year," skipping cheerfully through the MTV2 mini-hit "The Sound of Settling." The album's title track and centerpiece is a lovesick, piano-driven epic so riveting it feels too short even at eight minutes in length. "I need you so much closer," Gibbard repeats over and over again as the music rises, ready to burst. It's the perfect background music to longing for that unattainable person--whether you're separated by an ocean or the politics of the high-school social order.

Seth Cohen isn't going to change that order, but he might shake it up a bit. According to a recent ratings report, the average number of viewers for each O.C. episode has been 9.56 million. That's a whole lot of young, impressionable minds learning that it's cool to be a nerdy outsider. That it's cool to talk about your feelings, to be nice to girls, to get along with your parents. And it's cool to like Death Cab for Cutie.

Imagine if half of The O.C.'s audience bought a copy of Transatlanticism. We'd have a new Nirvana on our hands. That probably won't happen, as Gibbard is attractive in a lost-puppy sort of way but lacks charisma and star power, and the fluff-pop "The Sound of Settling" is no galvanizing, "Smells like Teen Spirit"-style anthem. But the potential is there for a mass teen culture revolution, the likes of which we haven't seen since Kurt Cobain made it hip for boys to wear dresses. For the first time since the grunge years, wimpy dudes have got a big-time role model, a soundtrack and some serious cred. What they do with that power remains to be seen. Tune in next season....

Death Cab for Cutie plays with Ben Kweller and the Thermals Wednesday, May 5, at the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-0047. 8 pm. $15 advance, $17 day of show. All ages.