Cold War Kids make all the right moves
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, Calif., 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 ER and (literally) 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 staples on L.A.'s alt-rock station KROQ and darlings of 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. "Moving up here was the best thing I've done lately," said bassist Matt Maust over breakfast recently. "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 move coincided with a shift in their goals for the band. Its 2006 debut, "Robbers & Cowards," documented life on society's edges, and its 2008 follow-up, "Loyalty to Loyalty," was a collection of half-remembered fever dreams from the road. But its new album, "Mine Is Yours," recently released on Interscope Records, 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.
Haste makes waste
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, band members say they rushed the record and left many song ideas unrealized. Though their audience grew, they paid for 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 decamping to Nashville for months on end to work with Tom Waits' and Modest Mouse's producer Jacquire King, arriving with dozens of fragments and their only rule being every idea was on the table - except haste.
The band had believed its recordings should be documents of its often-searing live dynamic, with each instrument speaking for itself and songs written around the clamor. Under King's guidance, 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. It's a record rooted in well-crafted songwriting and production more than the dank desperation of a warehouse.
Circle of friends
After a time of creative turmoil, Willett turned to more intimate and classic spheres of subject matter for lyrics. His old songs seemed haunted by the things chasing bluesmen - the devil, booze, disappointed women - along with nods to literary heroes Vladimir Nabokov and Joan Didion.
But those fictions didn't make sense with these sounds, or with the truth of their lives as a successful midcareer 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 torn apart by 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 'aha' 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 , but with them, the art is always first," King said. "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."