Release Date: Apr 2, 2013
Record label: Downtown
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Some bands are trendy. Cold War Kids are borderline schizophrenic. They began in the mid-'00s playing blues-gritty indie rock but ditched that sound for clumsy Springsteenian sweep. They've added a Bowie/New Order gloss for their fourth LP, which nicks its title and concept from Nathanael West's 1933 novel about an L.A.
Cold War Kids have an interesting approach to composition: each instrument finds itself a small tune or pattern and, when alone, seems insignificant; yet, when layered or consecutively placed, weaves into less a song than a directional progression, a build-up, tied together by Nathan Willett’s rough and lovable filtered vocals. Their fourth, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts—interestingly titled similarly to Nathanael West’s devastating work—returns to the above composition style that 2011’s Mine Is Yours unfortunately chose to forego. Themes of maturation again flow through, yet some tracks (“Jailbirds,” “Bottled Affection”) recognize the trade-off between freedom and insecurity of youth.
“Honestly, this is the first album where I do have expectations and I would be surprised and disappointed if the record didn’t do well and open doors for us. Being able to tour in Asia, play bigger venues, or record a song with someone like Elvis Costello, is the sort of thing I expect with this album.” Yes, that is Nathan Willett, frontman of Long Beach-based “soul-punk” outfit Cold War Kids, but not recently. That quote from Clash Magazine refers to their previous release, 2011’s Mine Is Yours, and by as far as hasty internet research reveals, Cold War Kids did not make it to Asia, and only covered Costello, though the hope of playing bigger venues had to be reached in some festival settings.
Why did Cold War Kids cross the road? To get to the middle. That’s the sort of cruel joke some unkind people (me) were making around the time 2011’s ‘Mine Is Yours’ came out. That album kinda sucked. That’s why it’s such a relief to hear the exhilarating piano-pounding of opener ‘Miracle Mile’ and realise that they’ve stopped trying to do indie rock by numbers and gone back to the sort of idiosyncratic weirdness that made us fall for them in the first place.
After spending a couple of albums teetering on the edge between too quirky and too bland, Cold War Kids regain their balance on Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. This is their first album to feature former Modest Mouse and Murder City Devils guitarist Dann Gallucci, and it's hard not to see his addition as one of the main reasons the band sounds more focused and confident than it has in some time (especially since he co-produced the album). "Miracle Mile" kicks things off with one of Cold War Kids' boldest statements of purpose: as it unfolds from pounding pianos into a song about coming back strong, it's clear that they've reined in both the slickness of Mine Is Yours and the theatrics of Loyalty to Loyalty.
There's a lot to be said for mediocre music. There's plenty out there that we love, that we turn to for junk food comfort, that we like purely because it satisfies a basic craving. We need an abundance of mediocrity to make a nice cushion between the good and the bad. We like mediocrity because it's pleasant and inoffensive.
After hitting the ground running with their debut album Robbers And Cowards in 2006, Cold War Kids have never quite managed to replicate their early success. The quartet’s critically-acclaimed debut, which included the addictive singles Hang Me Up To Dry and We Used To Vacation, suggested that they had the potential to be one of the most exciting indie rock bands to come out of America in a long time. While the California band’s sophomore effort, 2008’s much darker Loyalty To Loyalty, did not go down as well with the critics, it showed that Cold War Kids were willing to push themselves and their sound in new directions.
Even Cold War Kids’ vocalist Nathan Willett can admit that the band’s last release, 2011’s Mine Is Yours, was a letdown. “It was over-thought and over-produced,” the frontman recently admitted. For fans, clinging to Cold War Kids since their heavily hyped 2006 debut felt similar to refusing to bid a show like Weeds farewell; it had faltered since Nancy Botwin set fire to her little slice of suburbia, but inexplicably, you couldn’t help but stick around.
If you want to know what it sounds like for a band to go in several different directions at once and actually make that philosophy work for a good chunk of an album, look no further than the fourth studio release from this California rock quartet. While “Lonelyhearts,” the group’s first album with new guitarist Dann Gallucci, offers some of the atmospheric, blues-tinged sound that made its name, it also beats to a distinctly electronic pulse. There are also rivers of synths, spectral grooves, and keening vocals gently swirling in fits of forward propulsion and melancholy stasis.
Cold War Kids have never been a band particularly adored by music buffs. They’ve been accused of bandwagon-jumping left, right and centre for their (admittedly far from unique) bluesy-indie-rock sound, sidelined for being a “religious” band and even labelled “drunken Jeff Buckley karaoke” by coveted tastemakers Pitchfork in their review of the band’s second album. While it’s true that Nathan Willett’s voice can be a little jarring on first listen, especially in some of the band’s earlier material, the same could be, and has been said of, say, Tom Waits, Thom Yorke, Bob Dylan… Not that I’m for a moment suggesting Cold War Kids should be discussed under the same terms as any of those.
Cold War Kids’ fourth album, ‘Dear Miss Lonelyhearts’, faces a similar struggle to their previous effort, 2011’s ‘Mine Is Yours’ in so far as it doesn’t quite achieve what you so hoped they would. Like its predecessor, this is a decidedly mixed affair, treading ground that bounces between confident streams of electro-fizz at its start and sparse plodding material that occupies much of its middle. Whilst this offers changes in tempo and style, the quartet, now boasting the talents of former Modest Mouse member Dann Gallucci, lose a lot of the momentum built up during its opening phase.