Friday, February 1, 2008

Review: Cold War Kids - "Robbers & Cowards"

Cold War Kids
- "Robbers & Cowards"

Yes, the Cold War Kids do sound like The White Stripes. That might bother some people, but it doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t bother me because, while there might be similarities between the two bands, the Cold War Kids have enough individuality and overall quality to make them not only enjoyable but exciting to listen to. Some songs are just straight rocking (Hang Me Up To Dry). If you’re after quality raw bluesy rock, then you’ll get it. But what really makes “Robbers & Cowards” such an exciting listen is the depth and subtlety contained in its songwriting.

The album’s first track, We Used To Vacation, describes an alcoholic’s struggle (and probable failure) to overcome his addiction. Singing in character, vocalist Nathan Willett employs storytelling techniques that are both tantalising and sophisticated. The song’s first lines – “I kiss the kids at noon / Then stumble out the room / I caught a cab / Ran up a tab…” – paint a very clear picture of the main characters everyday life. As the song progresses, however, it also becomes clear that we are listening to a narrator that is not completely reliable. We are told of his promise to “never touch another drink as long as I live”, and his chanted belief that “this will all blow over in time”. By the end of the song it is clear that it is not us he is trying to convince, it is himself.

Other lines, such as “That accident left everyone a little shook up” and “But at the meetings I felt so empty”, are provocative. I was left wondering: What led this character to drinking? And what led him to revaluate his life? I was left imagining the shame and regret he might experience, sitting in a meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous. A less ambitious songwriter would have resorted to plain reportage: “I am an alcoholic. I am trying to overcome my addiction. I am in denial.” Willett communicates all this information, but does so in a way that is far more imaginative, challenging, and frankly just more interesting.

Such artful storytelling is also featured in tracks like Saint John and Hospital Beds. Both songs outline a loose narrative but leave much about the featured characters and their surroundings to the imagination. The stories are easy to follow, but the meanings behind them are left for the listener to decide.

In terms of overall sound, “Robbers & Cowards” is very cohesive album. With the exclusion of maybe Passing The Hat and God, Make Up Your Mind, all the songs combine to form a natural whole. In terms of specific instrumentation and production, "Robbers & Cowards" has a lot more drums than I expected, both in terms of mixing and drum patterns. Coming from a hip-hop background, this is something I like. A lot!

As I mentioned earlier, the album is raw. I’m talking about jarring changes in tempo & time signature, instruments getting out of time with each other, and occasionally playing a few notes in the wrong key. When done well, I really like this. If I formed a band and played like this (which I probably would because I have no musical talent) I’d sound like an amateur. These dudes make it sound good. Very good. A lot of bands, including The White Stripes, make use of a very raw sound. In my opinion, one thing in favour of the Cold War Kids is that they apply it in a way that is very appropriate to the mood and subject matter of their songs. They aren’t just raw for the sake of being raw. The changing tempo and crazy guitar in We Used to Vacation (particularly towards the song's end) build upon the character’s words to create a frantic, almost disturbing mood. This technique (and subject matter) reminded me of the Velvet Underground classic Heroin (if you dig this, check out the album version of Water by The Roots).

In the same way, raw instrumentation lends a very palpable extra edge to Willett’s vocals on songs like Saint John and the album’s secret track, Sermon Vs The Gospel. In Sermon, both the vocals and instrumentation sound completely uninhibited. It is not a watered down, pristine, studio recording, and the song benefits significantly from this. The band seems to almost shake from the energy and emotion behind the track’s lyrics.

Unfortunately "Robbers & Cowards" is not a stellar album all the way through, it does have low points. The strange, and at times almost carnivalesque, God, Make Up Your Mind deserve a hearty skip in my opinion. And depending on my mood, I may or may not bother to listen to Passing The Hat and Robbers.

Other than that, this is a sold album. Be prepared to give "Robbers & Cowards" a few listens, as some of the songs did take a little while to grow on me. If you’re into raw music, or good story-based songwriting, then this might be something for you.

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