For a minute there, Cold War Kids looked like the saviors of intelligent, conceptual rock and roll. When their first album, Robbers and Cowards, was released in 2006, it caught most of us who follow indie-rock off-guard. It was slickly produced and unabashed in its stadium aspirations, but it carried the weight of thoughtful lyricism and progressive musical tendencies.
In other words, Cold War Kids looked poised to be the Phil Collins-era Genesis of the 2000s: Loved by many, huge in the mainstream and hated by a large group of too-cool-for-you hipsters. It all went wrong after a couple of hits and the band disappeared from the public eye. However, with new strong material under their belt, are the Kids making a comeback nobody has caught on to yet?
2006 was a great year for Cold War Kids. Their album Robbers and Cowards was stunning in its musical urgency and emotional poignancy. It was right up in your face, but songs like "We Used to Vacation" crossed life experiences to cause so many of us to relate strongly to its message.
I've never been married or missed my son's graduation, yet I think we've all done stupid things while fucked up. It tapped into a deep well of regret with a conceptual that carried its way brilliantly across the record.
"Hang Me Up to Dry" was huge. It was that big inescapable hit that the whole album was looking for, and it broke through exactly as everyone expected it would. All goals of this record seemed to be met. Game, set, match. Cold War Kids were on top of the world they set out to conquer.
Unfortunately, it's a hard world in which to lead a conquest, and an even harder one to maintain your grip on. Their sophomore slump came on hard with Loyalty to Loyalty in 2008. It followed the same formula, but the critical reception was murky.
By 2011's Mine Is Yours, it had been five years since Cold War Kids first broke, and it seemed their formula was broken. The record was a tepid listen. Its music was pedestrian and missed out on whatever made this band so magical in the first place. It showed a band lost in its attempts to reclaim what it felt was rightfully theirs in the first place. Their own message was lost among shoddy songwriting and weak production.
The band even brought in Jacquire King, producer for Kings of Leon, to try to make it something special. But in grasping for the success that the Kings were experiencing at that point, the Kids sold their own souls. It seemed like they were done. Certainly I wrote them off, sweeping the record from my mind and skipping their next live performance in town.
The odds are at that point that a band is done. Comebacks happen, but they're rare. For the most part, when you have one great record and two bad ones in a row, your batting average is not going to suddenly improve.
But like a football team with a great quarterback down by 20 in the fourth quarter, you just can't write off Cold War Kids.
Story continues on the next page.
I was hesitant to buy it at first, but I listened to their fourth record, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts, on a whim, expecting very little. Even the title was the sort of thing I felt was beneath this formerly great band. If it was any indication of the album's contents, I was in for a long slog.
To my great surprise, the album burst out of the gate with "Miracle Mile," the album's first single, and maybe the best song the band had written to date. It was all coming back to me, and to them.
That urgency in the staccato keys, the accentuating guitar riffs, the wailing vocal performance which was finally back up at the forefront of the mix, the lack of try-hard "need-a-hit-quick" bullshit that their previous two records reeked of, and the catchy chorus. This was an earworm like I hadn't heard in ages.
And then there were the self-conscious lyrics, almost speaking to me and others who had been disappointed by their decline. Nathan Willett's desperate white-boy soulful voice opens that song by declaring "I was supposed to do great things," before admitting that "if you start from scratch, you have to sing just for the fun of it."
In the gospel-inspired chorus, he says he's coming up for air. It's an admission, an apology, and a return all in one. It's the sound of a band coming back to life for the first time in seven years.
The rest of the album held up just as well, but it failed to make an impact on the listening public. Seven years on, after all, is a long ways out to win back to hearts and minds of critics and the general public; Lonelyhearts was less of a hit than their previous two stale records.
These things take time though, and Cold War Kids will release their fifth effort, Hold My Home, tomorrow. So far, it sounds just as great as Dear Miss Lonelyhearts.
This band has improved in every way. Their songwriting is top-notch again, and lead single "All This Could Be Yours" is another fantastic example of everything they do well. They're playing to their strengths for the first time since 2006.
They're also aided by new recruits on production, guitar and drums. Dear Miss Lonelyhearts was in part so successful because it was produced by the team of former Mars Volta sound manipulator and engineer Lars Stalfors and former Modest Mouse guitarist Dann Gallucci. Gallucci, for his part, has since joined the band-full time on guitar while bringing in fellow Modest Mouse alum Joe Plummer to play drums. Stalfors also produced Hold My Home.
So far, these changes have led to a massive musical comeback for the Kids, but will it translate to commercial and critical success? Only time will tell. They certainly spent a lot of good will over the years that they struggled to find themselves.
I'll be rooting for them, but for now I'm content to watch as they make their return in secret, pulling out their best material in years even as the public is hesitant to catch on. In some years, regardless of what Cold War Kids do in the future, these albums are only going to gain in esteem as people realize what brilliant songwriters these guys could be when at their best.
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