Cold War Kids – Loyalty to Loyalty
Downtown Records (9/23/08)
Indie rock / Blues-rock
“We were yelling our heads off / Now I’m surrounded by snow”.
—”Avalanche in B”, on Cold War Kids’ new album Loyalty to Loyalty
I guess so. I don’t think an album has been this influenced by the booger sugar since Young Jeezy’s last. I remember, the first time I heard Cold War Kids’ excellent “Hang Me Out to Dry”, thinking that they sounded like at any second they might lose the rhythm and devolve into some ponderous, off-key Radiohead-worship. That they continue to hold onto that steadily bouncing groove throughout the track and match it with a loose Bono-ish warble is part of what made them the apple of every blogger’s eye for about 5 minutes.
The hype clearly got to the Cold War Kids’ heads while recording Loyalty to Loyalty, and it got there through their nostrils. Thing is, while at a lot of times this record indulges in melodramatic id-unleashing atonal cocaine-casualty caterwaul, it doesn’t completely drop the plot. At its best moments, the album has a sinister vibe that loses you in the dark headspace of the hour past closing time, when the buzz just starts to turn and the streets are almost, but not quite, empty.
Cold War Kids always were, ostensibly, bluesy in their approach; this album has its feet rooted more in cabaret and jazz than blues. The exception is the tone that guitarist Johnnie Russell employs. On most of these tracks he uses a sparse, reverb-drenched attack that, tonally, sounds like the naked electric work of Muddy Waters. The lyrics, all echo-chamber and noir-storytelling courtesy of Nathan Willet, and the combination of turgid drum-work and whorehouse piano give these tracks an unmistakable pulp vibe—more Brick than Sin City. “Golden Gate Jumpers” sounds like a distorted ’50s R&B love jam (the kind of vibe I think that last Black Keys album was trying to catch) but tells a story about encountering a girl trying to jump off a bridge. “Mexican Dogs” quotes Iggy Pop and vibes Quentin Tarantino and builds it over a sprightly lock-step beat that has its feet in both Link Wray-surf and mariachi.
The preceding “Every Valley Is Not a Lake” is a testimonial, gospel-groove style in the manner of “Son of a Preacher Man”. This comes from the perspective of an older generation chastising the wide-eyed attitude of youth in the personae of a grandmother bursting the bubble of a know-it-all young-adult granddaughter. In fact, throughout the album Willet’s lyrics take on a female perspective: one track is even called “Every Man I Fall For” as the narrator asks of oneself: “tired housewives nagging at their husbands but / is this the life you chose?”.
But it’s here, and on tracks including the aforementioned “Avalanche in B”, and the sleepy and twisted “Cryptomnesia”, that Cold War Kids seem to be lost on a pretty long white highway. It’s the kind of indulgent, noodly, pseudo-Freud word-associated lyrically, tone-deficient drone that bloggers only like for how non-populist it is. Those of us expecting something that the more ambitious could dance to have to settle with the techno-fied electro-bass laced “Relief”.
Loyalty to Loyalty isn’t an easy pill to swallow the first time around. It is dense in egghead self-satisfaction (in interviews they’ve claimed Ayn Rand as an influence and been compared to Tom Waits) and lost in aggrandizing cokehead pseudo-depth. For all that, though, it’s got some genuine moments of revelation. The atmosphere throughout the album is palpable, and the dark and turgid stories told through the lyrics don’t so much dictate a tale as suggest all the right images to create a neo-noir night-terror vibe. The Cold War Kids are like Project Mayhem, in that you choose your own level of involvement. Follow them too closely and you’ll get lost in a gnarled, vicious fever-dream bad trip. If you take Cold War Kids in stride and allow the gestalt to nudge you subtly along (subtly enough, you might even pick up on the quasi-socialist political undercurrent) you’ll hit on the dark and moving atmosphere in which Loyalty to Loyalty is quite rich.
Tags: Iggy Pop, U2