September 18, 2013

Test Spins: Cold War Kids, Tuxedo

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Call the California-based blues/indie-rock quartet Cold War Kids a lot of things: Call them bandwagon jumpers, call them pretentious, lacking in personality, “borderline schizophrenic” or a bunch of emoting hipsters starved and desperate for their yet-to-surface indie arena sing-along hit. But don’t call them repetitive.

They’ve done everything, I mean … everything. From the indie blues and power pop of Robbers & Cowards (2007) to the philosophical-political soap-boxing confusion of Loyalty to Loyalty (2008), the wish-upon-a-star Springsteen/Train/The Killers nonsense of Mine is Yours (2010), to finally, a halfway decent attempt at their own record with 2013’s Dear Miss Lonelyhearts. It’s a concept album, based around Nathanael West’s 1933 novel about the crack-up of a popular advice columnist. However random that may read initially, it’s the first theme that seems to have driven a sense of urgency and energy into the Cold War Kids process. It surpassed the crisp, clean nothingness of Mine is Yours and the same note whining of Loyalty to Loyalty. No one was arguing these guys weren’t talented, but for a while it felt like they had nothing but talent — proficiency, but nothing to say with it, nothing that hadn’t already been done before, and better.

The foursome, consisting of lead-singer Nathan Willet, bassist Matt Maust, drummer Matt Aveiro and new addition, former Modest Mouse guitarist, Dann Gallucci, is seeing their first unanimous critical success since their debut LP Robbers & Cowards six years, two LP’s and a shit-ton of eviscerating Pitchfork reviews ago. The band’s new recipe includes the guitarist swap, as well as an increased focus on Willet’s vocal and piano-playing talent (essentially their only trump card) and a return to the rock-blues sound that made them seem so promising half a decade ago. Whereas Paste magazine once explained Willett’s vocals as “walking that tiny line between Timberlake and Levine,” they stand out in the band’s recent works as obviously unique, soaring and way, way more interesting than anything off a Maroon 5 LP. Willet takes center stage on Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and the new EP, Tuxedos. Tuxedos features two aptly-handled Antony & the Johnsons covers, two new recordings of songs off of the recent Dear Miss Lonelyhearts (“Tuxedos,” “Bottled Affection”) and two all-new ballads: “Romances Languages #2” and “Pine St.”

In the past, Cold War Kids’ Achilles heel has been their obvious ambition. They’ve boasted openly about one-day-soon selling out arenas in Asia and “recording with someone like Elvis Costello.” It was all too easy to shoot them down for being pretentious hipster douchebags who would name their albums after obscure philosophers and ’30s romance novels not a soul has heard of.  The fact that their whiny and declaratively post-modern shenanigans song “Every Man I Fall For” wrapped up John Krasinski’s failed attempt at adapting hipster deity David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men seemed to sum them up in a pretty neat and solid nutshell. “It’s the law of diminishing returns,” Willett moans, and he’s right — there are only so many esoteric philosophical, political and musical odds and ends you can cram into your “personal aesthetic” before it stops benefiting you and starts making you read as a convoluted mess who doesn’t actually believe anything.

However, the recent work from the Kids on Dear Miss Lonelyhearts and now Tuxedo proves they might finally be finding their footing and earning their keep. Far from a macabre collage of musical eras gone South for a reason, these works are a stab towards an interesting, and welcome, departure from plagiarism and pseudo-emotion. While the “Cathedral Version” of “Bottled Affection” makes some smart additions to the original, including a female harmony and some not-even-cheesy organ music, the title track “Tuxedos” is a poorly-chosen repeat — the lyricism is not great (it’s “Suit and Tie,” but sad), and it’s not one of the Lonelyhearts stand-out tracks (E.g. “Miracle Mile,” “Loner Phase,” “Bitter Poem”). But the masterpiece on this EP is clearly the just-over-two-minutes, vaguely-1950’s-prom/lullaby ballad “Pine St.” It’s the first time I’ve heard something smacking of genuine emotion behind Willett’s technically proficient vocals, and the simple but dense lyrics are a great stride towards the sparse Bob Dylan-intensity that the Kids have only mimicked thus far. “Romance Languages #2” is worth listening to as well — it’s catchy, and refreshing, with nicely orchestrated cliff-hangs in the score that Willett capitalizes on stunningly. The repeated line, “I’m exhausted by romance,” maybe takes some kind of stab at the love-gone-wrong linchpin of the tortured romantic indie songwriter shtick. Let’s hope anyway. It’s really the first sign that Cold War Kids craves more than commercial success — they’re not just going to write arena love songs, not just going to rip off Coldplay’s cheesy costuming and confetti-dump showmanship; they’ve tried and failed and realized that they don’t actually want to be part of that hypocritical “alt” band culture.

Kaitlyn Tiffany is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]