Cold War Kids move toward the big time
A few weeks ago, the members of Cold War Kids did something they felt was long overdue. They moved to Los Angeles.
The quartet had long lived on the outer orbits of L.A.'s cultural life — a studio in Long Beach, a stint based in Whittier, college at Biola. Life on the fringes suited their musical and lyrical interests. Cold War Kids’ early songs were an untrendy mix of barroom blues-punk populated by a fictional cast of alcoholic dads, trips to the E.R. and (literal) dirty laundry. Somehow it caught on among L.A’s demimonde in the mid-'00s, though not without scorn from snarkier corners of blogland, and made them unlikely KROQ staples and darlings of the respected major-indie Downtown Records.
But the band still seemed purposefully and necessarily set apart from L.A.'s indie elite, geographically and psychologically. But that’s changed. Between tours, they’ll come home to new Los Feliz and Silver Lake homes, and to an unlikely peace with a city that they long defined themselves against.
“Moving up here was the best thing I’ve done lately,” said bassist Matt Maust over breakfast at Mustard Seed Cafe, an urban-quaint red brick restaurant in Los Feliz. “We used to live on one of the main drags in Long Beach and now I have this back house where I walk out and exhale deeply and it’s so, so quiet.”
The recent move coincided with a shift in their goals for the band. Its 2006 debut, “Robbers & Cowards,” documented life on society’s edges, and its cryptic 2008 follow-up, “Loyalty to Loyalty,” was a collection of half-remembered fever dreams from the road.
But its new album, “Mine Is Yours,” released on Interscope Records last week, is a relatively easygoing and hook-savvy record about the trials and pleasures of domesticity that could introduce Cold War Kids to a very different audience. It will make skeptics feel entirely justified in their scorn, longtime fans impressed with the band’s advancement and attention to songcraft, and make new audiences hoist beers and kiss someone.
It also comes after one of the more difficult periods in the band’s life. “Robbers & Cowards” had a genuine hit in the minimalist dub vamp “Hang Me Up to Dry,” and they enjoyed the wind of a breakout new band at their back. For “Loyalty,” the Kids worked quickly in the studio to document the things they believed their band was built on — fussy but precise rhythmic interplay from bassist Maust and drummer Matt Aveiro, Jonathan Russell’s echo-laden single-string guitar riffs and Nathan Willett’s voice, rooted in classic soul and character-driven lyrical vignettes.
In hindsight, though, the band members say they rushed the record and left many song ideas unrealized. Though their audience grew, they paid for their haste with some poor reviews that chipped at their faith in how their band worked.
“A lot of our good ideas went unfinished. Nobody was there to tell us, ‘This is good, but it could be better,’” Willett said. “A song like ‘Dreams Old Men Dream’ was a great idea that we picked before it was ripe.”
For “Mine Is Yours,” they made a point of upending that routine by decamping to Nashville for months on end to work with Tom Waits’ and Modest Mouse’s producer Jacquire King, arriving with dozens of song fragments and their only rule being that every idea was on the table — except hastiness.
The band had believed its recordings should essentially be documents of its often searing live dynamic, with each instrument speaking for itself and the songs written around the clamor. Under King’s guidance, however, they pored over effects, tried out new elements like drum loops and programming on tracks such as “Sensitive Kid,” and took pains to write their most immediate melodies yet. It’s a record rooted in well-crafted songwriting and production more than the dank desperation of a warehouse practice space.
After a time of creative turmoil, Willett also turned to more intimate and classic spheres of subject matter for his lyrics. His old songs seemed haunted by the things chasing bluesmen for decades — the devil, booze and disappointed women — along with nods to literary heroes such as Nabokov and Joan Didion.
But those fictions didn’t make sense with these new sounds, or with the truth of their lives as a successful mid-career rock band. So the long-married Willett wrote about what he saw — old friends on the brink of divorce, couples in too deep to quit but riven with old wounds, and the tough joys of making a life with someone.
“We were watching a lot of Cassavetes films, and he had said that there’s no more fascinating subject than men and women together, and for me to admit to that was a real ‘a-ha’ moment for me,” Willett said. “My friends were all getting divorced and turning 30, and for the first time I wanted to write about the people around me.”
The album is generally optimistic about love, but like in any relationship, old attachments come back and cause trouble. Much of the early criticism lobbed at “Mine Is Yours” comes from the specter of Kings of Leon, whom producer King shepherded from big-in-England underachievers to arena-filling megastars.
Although there will likely never be anything approaching the Tarzan alpha swagger of “Sex on Fire” in Cold War Kids’ catalog, it’s not entirely coincidental that King’s ear for taking flinty, pop-adjacent blues-rock and spit-shining it for big stages had its appeal for the quartet.
“Sure they want that [commercial success], but with them the art is always first,” said King. “I hear a lot of talk of them cleaning up and going mainstream around this record. The goal wasn’t to find a top-40 audience, but to have worked on classic songcraft and productions. It’s not bad if you want to say something that connects with a lot of people.”
Whether “Mine Is Yours” kicks Cold War Kids from the Wiltern into the Greek Theatre will be determined this year. They’ve severed many of their outré bona fides in pursuit of something bigger, and arguably harder.
For now, though, Cold War Kids have had enough of running from the perpetual warmth and commercial possibility of Los Angeles and all it stands for. Maybe embracing it is the most dangerous thing they could have done.
“People think you need to be uncomfortable to make art. You don’t,” Willett said. “You first have to be comfortable to really let yourself be vulnerable.”
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