I. WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? ROMANTIC ISLE OF WIGHT?
Cold War Kids are a spectacularly odd case study in the systematic trashing of a band for minimal cause. Detractors of the band point without fail to two things as rationale for their hatred – their apparent ties to Evangelism, and their blatant Southern bayou influence, the latter of which is seen as dishonest because Cold War Kids hail from the three worst places in Southern California: Long Beach, Whittier, and (gasp!) Fullerton.
Let’s dispense with these straw men before actually getting into the CWK discography, which is now five albums deep with this year’s release of “Hold My Home.”
First – Cold War Kids are, as far as I can tell, not Evangelical Christians. Founding members Nathan Willett (vocals, guitar, piano) Jonnie Russell (guitar, piano, vocals), and Matt Maust (bass, graphic design) met at Evangelical liberal arts college Biola University (drummer Matt Aveiro joined later on.) But Evangelical college does not an Evangelical band make. As every single CWK defense ever feels obliged to state, the simple fact of being Christian does not seem to be a problem for indie rock fans or their tastemaker godfathers when said faith is proclaimed in a “folksy” way, à la Jeff Mangum’s “I LOVE YOU JEEEESUUUUUSSSSS,” or most things Bob Dylan ever said. The reason Cold War Kids got so much flak for even beginning to come across as Christian in their music is that a.) Marc Hogan took things a little bit far in his 5.0 review of their debut “Robbers & Cowards” for Pitchfork, and b.) Evangelicals are scary because they seem to push their faith on you in ways that, say, Sufjan Stevens’s ashram Christianity does not. Responding to the Hogan review, Willett said – “We were surprised because Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash – so many of our favorite musicians approach music from a spiritual standpoint. And at the time we were just starting, so being asked about this review during every interview you did, it was just like, ‘Fuuuuuck.”‘ Willett has stated that he has spent his entire mature life feeling pretty conflicted about church and faith, and I for one feel like we should take his word for it and drop the non-issue altogether.
As for the Bayou-sploitation accusations – does no one remember another California band that made a huge career out of appropriating Deep South signifiers to such a degree that people (including this website’s editor-in-chief) actually believed they were from the Delta? How about an English one? To give Cold War Kids shit for having a specific set of influences that doesn’t happen to conform to their geographical location is about as absurd as denying Amy Winehouse’s validity because she was neither black nor American.
So, let’s move on to the music, shall we? “Robbers & Cowards” came out in 2006 on Downtown Records following a string of EPs that contained earlier versions of many of the same songs. CWK were already reasonably big at this point, mainly because their live shows were fucking awesome. Oddly enough, it was the critical backlash to “Robbers” that sunk them before they ever had a chance.
While it is something of a mixed bag, “Robbers” is actually full of interesting ideas and jarring moments of complexity that, had people been paying attention, would have really helped CWK stand apart from the White Stripes/Black Keys/Kings of Leon axis they kept getting accused of aping. Opener “We Used To Vacation” features some thrilling guitar work – see the dramatic clang on the downbeat of the first line of each verse (“I *CLAHNG* the kids at noon / then stumbled out the room”). Russell’s solo here is so noisy and atonal as to be anti-blues. Startling, post-punkish tempo shifts abound here and throughout the rest of the album. The Black Keys spent their first four records without deviating from templates set out fifty years earlier – Cold War Kids tear them up within the first minute of their first record.
Things decline a bit after “Vacation,” but there are definite highlights. While the ubiquitous lead single “Hang Me Up To Dry” is built around a a two-chord structure not dissimilar to most of the rest of the songs on this album, the groove provided by Matts Maust and Aveiro is damn near perfect, and Willett shows off his impressive pipes with some killer octave jumps and other modulation. Russell nails it with some chiming guitar work over Willett’s omnipresent barroom tack piano. The song sets a CWK precedent by feeling like it’s about to crumble at any second, then reasserting itself as a tightly oiled machine. Setting another precedent, though, are Willett’s incredibly dumb laundry-as-relationship-metaphor lyrics. Willett’s lyrics – frequently marred by lame metaphors and lazy character-driven storytelling – are one of the most valid objects of CWK criticism.
The front half of the record continues in predictable fashion – lots of two-chord songs, lots of wailing, generally silly lyrics, excellent grooves. “Hair Down,” “Passing The Hat,” and “Saint John” are a trifecta of bayou’d out, somewhat Jesus-y tracks that are overall pretty fun, though less original than the best stuff here.
Said best stuff hits its peak with “Hospital Beds,” which I honestly think is one of the better songs ever written. This was the first CWK song I ever heard, and I stand by it as rationale enough to listen to “Robbers” in its entirety. The four piano chords Willett sticks to for the verses are more emotionally evocative than a lot of bands’s entire oeuvres. The lyrics are some of his best, a story of empathy in a hospital – “Nurses a-fussin’ / And doctors on tour / Somewhere in India.” This disillusionment is highlighted by the nearly nonsensical second verse, which repeats, “Vietnam / Fishing trips / Italian opera.” Is this a list of things our protagonist misses, things he remembers? No idea. But they evoke something, and Willett’s howl as he sings about them lets us know that it’s something important.
The rest of the record fails to hit the highs of “Hospital Beds,” but most would. “Red Wine, Success!” is a less-good rehash of side A, “God, Make Up Your Mind” has some fun exaggerated rhythmic shifts, but is too long, “Pregnant” is pretty but boring. False ending “Rubidoux” is a lot of fun, and would be an excellent closer. But then Cold War Kids shoot themselves in the foot by including a demo of a song called “Sermons vs. The Gospel” as a secret track. It was this song, which is already mediocre at best, that Hogan really sunk his teeth into, accusing the band of quoting George W. Bush and taking shots at the New York Times – two of the worst things you could possibly do in the eyes of a young liberal audience in 2006. (1)
II. EVERY SERMON IS NOT THE GOSPEL, BABE
Which is stupid, because 2008’s “Loyalty To Loyalty” is actually really good, and its lukewarm reception by the few people who actually championed “Robbers” is attributable to how uncool it was to like Cold War Kids in ’08.
“Loyalty” is a vastly more consistent album than “Robbers.” There are fewer mid-song left turns, which is good, because by the end of “Robbers” those were starting to feel like a crutch. Instead, “Loyalty” works in a few numbers that just would not be reasonable to have expected from this band two years prior. Most obvious of these is “Relief,” which is built around an unassailable synth bass groove, locking in and out of step with Maust’s real bass, as Aveiro holds down the backbeat underneath it all. Willett spends most of the song in his best, most soulful falsetto – it’s practically an R&B song.
Elsewhere on the album we have one-two opening punch “Against Privacy” and “Mexican Dogs.” The former is a fairly mellow way to open an album, making vague political statements, as Willett seems to sing from the perspective of a frighteningly omnipotent government presence. The song fades barely perceptibly into “Mexican Dogs,” another groovy romp with some characteristically great guitar work from Russell. Willett makes a few of his much-disdained literary references on the otherwise pretty rad “Welcome To The Occupation,” and “Golden Gate Jumpers” is a somewhat overwrought fiction about stopping a woman from killing herself.
This is followed, though, by yet another excellent one-two – the harrowing “Avalanche in B” into the furious “I’ve Seen Enough.” The former opens with the line – “Oh, avalanche in apartment B.” Somehow this went over the head of some dumbass at Pitchfork, who wrote of Willett’s caterwauling, “The title is the only indication that Willett is aware of the key at all.” If this isn’t evidence of the ridiculous bias against this band, I’m not sure what is. The song is a rumpled procession of barroom piano, lightly brushed drum clatter, and Willett’s tale of an anxiety-ridden anti-hero trapped in a mental winter. As “Avalanche” fades out, the low, pounding piano of “I’ve Seen Enough” revs up, and the band kicks into that song like it’s the last one they’ll ever play. Russell’s guitar is mixed too low (something true of the whole album, actually) but the song itself carries the weight for him.
III. I’LL TAKE OUT THE GARBAGE, YEAH, I WILL SQUEEZE YOUR JUICE
In 2009, the band released a stop-gap EP called “Behave Yourself” which they said served as something of a last gasp for the Cold War Kids of the first two records. Sick of the comparisons, they went and hired Kings of Leon’s sound-ruining producer Jacquire King and tried to become their own non-Southern “Southern U2” on album three, “Mine Is Yours.” This record got the worst critical rap of any CWK joint to date, which was fair. These songs are largely bland, melodically dull, and not groovy. The shininess King adds furthers the KoL comparisons in entirely the wrong direction. That said, songs like “Finally Begin,” “Skip The Charades” and “Cold Toes On The Cold Floor” still feel vaguely like vintage Cold War Kids, albeit heavily diluted.
The Kids seem to have realized their mistake almost as soon as they made it – they just were wrong about what the mistake was. Johnnie Russell must’ve been so disgusted by this turn, and the introduction of drum machines and synths, that he quit the band in 2012. (2) This would have been the end of my interest in CWK had they not gotten one of the most interesting replacement guitarists they possibly could have – Dann Gallucci, formerly of Seattle hell-raisers The Murder City Devils and briefly a member of Modest Mouse, joined up. If the guy who wrote the guitar part to “Bankrupt On Selling” is down to join your band, you must be doing something right. Gallucci helped to produce 2013’s “Dear Miss Lonelyhearts,” which furthers the drum-machines-and-synths inclinations of a few of “Mine Is Yours”‘s more adventurous songs (see: “Sensitive Kid”).
Unfortunately, Willett decided that getting adventurous meant getting ambitious, and while King was no longer involved, “Lonelyhearts” (a Nathanael West reference) feels more like watered-down “Only By The Night”-era Kings of Leon (is that even possible?) than watered-down Cold War Kids. Oddly, critics felt this record to be some sort of “return to form” after “Mine.” (3) It is not. Opener “Miracle Mile” has the bouncy electric piano vibe of former Lars Stalfors producees Matt & Kim, and is actually a pretty fun song. “Jailbirds” interrupts its maudlin piano-rock with a pretty bizarre noise-guitar interlude courtesy of Gallucci, but other than that his presence is barely noticeable on this record. Then there are tracks like “Loner Phase” which are based around Depeche Mode-aping synth pads. A bold move, indeed, for the Cold War Kids, but definitely not a very successful one. The worst thing about “Lonelyhearts,” though, is that Willett has abandoned his typical storytelling and vaguely religious preaching for less-vaguely personal preaching, which comes out much more clumsily and obnoxiously. Plus, his voice is slathered in a weird slap-back delay that makes the whole affair seem more processed than anything these guys ever should have tried.
This fall’s “Hold My Home” finds the band minus Aveiro, but with another erstwhile Modest Mouse in tow – Joe Plummer, who has also drummed spectacularly for The Black Heart Procession, The Magic Magicians, and Islands/Man Man supergroup Mister Heavenly. You’d hope the addition of more audacious talent would do something for the band, but “Home” falls flatter than any previous CWK outing. They kind of moved back towards their ramshackle roots here, but my sense is that most of the early desperation that made “Robbers” and “Loyalty” so interesting was a Russell contribution, and Gallucci and Plummer seem disinterested in bringing it back. Willett finally went too far with his literary references by naming a song “Harold Bloom.” These songs are so sleek and so sonically-overloaded that if it weren’t for Willett’s inimitable voice and the guitar tone on “Flower Drum Song,” it’d be kind of hard to tell this was the band that made “We Used To Vacation.”
Not that the fans seem to have noticed. “Lonelyhearts” and “Home” peaked at 11 and 8, respectively, on the US Alternative charts, while “Mine Is Yours” went and hit 5. “Robbers” has sold over 200,000 copies. This band has traction that surprises even this avowed fan. I think it has something to do with that all-important intangible that is “heart.” What’s more, the alt-radio world apparently still hasn’t gotten its fill of simplistic arena-targeted blowhard-rock. It’s really too bad the indie world didn’t ever get the permission to embrace the falling-down speakeasy that was Cold War Kids 1.0 due to lazy and misplaced accusations from outlets with enough power to have known better. Look on yr works, ye mighty Marc and Ian. Look and despair.
(1) It’s really essential to remember what 2006 was like in independent music when thinking about this record, and the rest of Cold War Kids’s career. This was essentially when the blog-rock bubble burst. This was the year of “The Loon” and “Mothers, Sisters, Daughters, & Wives” and “A Lesson In Crime” and “Writer’s Block” and “Return To The Sea” and “Boys And Girls In America” and “Yellow House” and and “Are The Dark Horse” and “Gulag Orkestar” and fucking “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.” It was also the year right between “Youth & Young Manhood” and “Aha Shake Heartbreak.” To emerge in a field full of this much hype could destroy even a great band. It fucked a lot of the above pretty completely. The fact that Cold War Kids are now on their fifth record and that quite a lot of people actually still care is insane.
(2) This is purely speculative – official word is he left for personal reasons.
(3) What Pitchfork thought about “Lonelyhearts” is a mystery, as they stopped bothering to review the band post-“Mine Is Yours.”