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Cold War Kids: Heavier on Record

13 Oct

Cold War Kids aren’t Sunny Cali-forn-i-yay. They come from Nixon’s stomping grounds, where the California sun has a bitter and unrepentant glare and this honest, crushing constancy is embodied in the best Cold War Kids songs. The narratives wrap you in and push you through a sharp lens, like a John Cheever short story. Whether it’s the opening crash of “We Used to Vacation” and the announcement from Nathan Willett that he’s “just an honest man/provide for me and mine” to the wail that “Nobody gave us names/Like Mexican dogs” from “Mexican Dogs,” you cannot fault CWK for their ambitious story telling.

Sometimes though, as at the Fine Line Music Cafe, crammed to uncomfortable capacity with brosephs and yuppies, earnest examination becomes performative and gimmicky. Playing with the lights off and shining Maglite flashlights into the crowd seemed less sinister and more like rowdy campers trying to tell ghost stories. The “whi-wh-whites of your eyes” from “Hang Me Up to Dry” ceased to have a frustrated anger and became rote. Yes, the crowd cheered and sang along to “Vacation,” “Hospital Beds,” and “Hang” – no doubt due in part to the generous radio play received by those songs. Yes, you can expect songs from the break-out album to be better recognized. But these songs also sounded better live than offerings from the newly released Loyalty to Loyalty. “Something Is Not Right With Me” came off as shrill and solipsistic, “Coffee Spoons” had me looking around for Nick Urata of DeVotchKa to do a better version, and “Mexican Dogs” sounded like a dime-a-dozen guitar quartet.

Cliffhanger Criticism Continues!

Which may be the crux of dissatisfaction with the new release – it seems to have jettisoned the jittery pool-hall piano blues in favor of layered guitars that simply are not as compelling. The keys gave CWK a channel to the hard-boiled American stories by the likes of Skip James and were a broken, angular, percussive composition that lent the boys from sunny Cali a gravitas. Opener AA Bondy (written about previously in Cake In 15 here) kept his songs grounded in that more conventional American bluesman trope, but leavened it with his ironic wit and simple backing built upon amped guitars and fuzz. Bondy’s American Heart release isn’t as ambitious as the Cold War Kids and so his straightforward performance came across more easily, with more focus.

Not that CWK put on a bad show by any measure – watching bassist Matt Maust wheel around and stroke out low dark tones was like watching an Egon Schiele drawing in motion, and guitarist Jonnie Russell with drummer Matt Aveiro ably held their own and drove the tempo. Still, the weight of these disappointments and the heft of the crowd pushed me out into the alleyway, where the night was mild and a little smoky, and snippets of people’s lives came in from conversations and spilled drinks on all sides. And when Willett and Co. came back out for an encore of “St. John,” it came out crackling, a little distant, then picked itself up off the bricks and danced hard.

Free downloads from Loyalty to Loyalty here, courtesy of RCRDLBL.

“St. John” from the Takeaway Shows by La Blogotheque:

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