For nearly 15 years, Nathan Willett and Cold War Kids have fielded the shifts in the music landscape’s seismic activity as well as the ebbs and flows in their own camp while simultaneously sticking to their game plan. Over the course of a dozen releases on majors and indies alike, non-stop tours and the festival circuit’s biggest stages, massive radio and streaming successes as well as a few lineup changes, Cold War Kids have become a major part of the modern scene. Coming off of the high water marks of 2014’s Hold My Home with its smash single “First” and the Capitol Records-backed LA Divine in 2017 feeling mostly satiated, Willett began to hone in on what was most exciting and integral to him in both the Cold War Kids recipe as well as in the current music climate as he began to write new material. He obsessed over the seemingly never-ending stream of Kanye West-produced records released in the summer of 2018, enamored of their breezy compactness and fresh feeling, which excited him to explore a new working relationship with his own producer of favor, Lars Stalfors (St. Vincent, Foster the People). Thepair entered the studio to write a very specific, of-the-moment type of album, encouraged to take the doors off of the idea of what the band was in order to see where it could go Willett and Stalfors incorporated some pieces of the core CWK sound while stripping away therafter-reaching production of their past records, aiming for leaner, tighter tunes. And, taking inspiration from a slogan on a T-shirt made by the band’s bass player and resident visual artist Matt Maust, Willett had the project’s title, lyrical themes, and structure in mind even before any songs had been completed—three unique eight-song volumes called New Age Norms. Writing from urgent, of-the-moment perspectives in order to respect and reflect the day’s normative behaviors and climate, Willett focused on a bird’s eye view of the current values he was observing all around him—the new norms of class, gender, race, and power that are creating our modern world. The first volume’s eight songs explore the connective tissue apparent to him in the landscape, with the sense of optimism and uplifting positivity he feels necessary to approach any issue, or song One such line—“Don’t sit around and complain about it”—provided the focal point for the first song on and written for New Age Norms, “Complainer,” a call to do something constructive rather than dwell on all the things that might drag us down. Co-written with the pop writer Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry, Rita Ora) and Electric Guest’s Asa Taccone (whose drummer,Matthew Compton, plays drums throughout New Age Norms), “Complainer” sizzles with its fresh mix of modern production and stand-by CWK sonic influences like Can and Talking Heads. The next song, “Fine Fine Fine,” recalls The Jam meets Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” abouncy rock-and-roller featuring female backup singers and a youthful raging against aging and maturing; “Waiting for Your Love” would sound right at home on an Emotional Rescue period Rolling Stones record, but with an update of Mick Jagger’s explicit stray cat strut to a version suitable for our times.
This past Thursday, Cold War Kids took the stage at The National, a mid-summer stop on their North American Tour since the April release of their live album, Audience. newest album, L.A. Divine. After catching the end of a madcap opening by the Regrettes, it would be another hour until the band would begin. Lighting over the stage revealed the band’s infatuation for maracas, five in count along with four tambourines, with some attached to one of the pianos, and another alongside the stand-up keyboard. This gave me hope that, despite a shift in sound since their 2014 “All This Could Be Yours”, I was hopeful this was going to be the same Cold War Kids I had reserved a six-song slot for on my first iPod.
Yet something about the Cold War Kids’ performance felt boxy, and the room lacked a certain energy. As the band took the stage, frontman Nathan Willett took little time for intros outside of a brief quip on Richmond and their last time playing here. While the show would seem clearly professional in orchestration, it would ultimately come across as non-personal. The entire night felt scripted, down to the lack of interaction between Mr. Willett and the audience. Mr. Willett, in a bomber jacket and leather shoes, threw in a few quips about how glad he was to be in the River City again, though it was obvious Richmond was a placeholder in his lines; nothing about his interactions was personalized. like another stop for them and another check off the list for me.
Surprisingly, the band did not begin with their mid-season hit “First” off the 2014 album, Home My Home. Instead, opening the show with “All This Could Be Yours”. And from the get-go, one could notice the shift in chemistry between the LA outfit and their original studio recordings. While Willett would occasionally juggle between keys and percussion, his endeavor would take him off focus, as bassist Matt Maust and guitarist David Quon took center stage with a fluid contrast of chords. Former Modest Mouse drummer Joe Plummer and keyboardist Matthew Schwartz seemed intent on carrying the octaval standard for the group, yet at times, the inability between the band to retain tonal control seemed unhinged and left Plummer waiting on the rest to catch up.
Willett struggled to live up to his original sound, unable to belt out throaty falsettos exactly like the recordings. As he bore through the older tracks, he would double back to newer tracks that seemed to drown him out over the blistering chords of Quon and Maust. Many danced with maraca or tambourine in hand, regardless of what they played, though it seemed at times a bit overdone. People in the audience members seemed constantly switching between amped and complacent, even at the pinnacle of the hammering of keys and percussions in tracks like “Mexican Dogs” and “Hang Me Up To Dry”, and I can understand why.
Without the same sledgehammer vocals nor passion, Willett even skipped the frantic jamming of the keys. It was clear the band was good, but not progressing. As an older fan, I always envisioned their live performance to rest on a bridge between indie rock and bluesy erraticism; I looked forward to the hand-mashing and musical tantrums that laid in store. And they did provide, at least for the older songs. But it seemed like anything even slightly newer was designed for a stadium, not an audience, as the premeditated riffs seemed to just drown Willett out.
On the plus side, the band understood the need for constant percussion, and they used everything to make their tempo as transparent as possible. Even the piano was being used as percussion and it somehow fits this way, kind of the way that banging a trash can fits in the junkyard band. It’s chaotic, but harmonious in this space. This was most present in older tracks like “Hospital Beds” and “We Used To Vacation” as their demeanor regressed back to the chaotic nature they popularized in their 2006 debut, Robbers and Cowards.
The group reminded us of their obsession for LA at every chance they could. The decor and banners, while still aesthetically impressive at first glance, were the exact same as their tour last year- simply steamrolled onto the stage before us. And the LA today, according to Willett’s allegro in the closing part of the set, is apparently undergoing some recontextualizing, as are the bands who reside there. They plead a case that this, at the end of this transformation, is one that seeks to inspire, yet when I think of Cold War Kids, I don’t think of inspiring. My instinct- distortion. That is the hallmark achievement of this group, to somehow find zen in variation.
Yet at times the performance, when mixed with the right amount of yellow wristband teenagers flailing off too much sprite, seemed far too commercial for what they are, and what I hoped for them to be. A band who won my heart with songs like “Hang Me Up To Dry” that, in less than four minutes, left you scattered across a monochrome set with nothing but cheap whiskey and lilting smoke to keep you company.
It’s wild how many staple bands have changed nowadays. Maybe we took bands like these for granted. Or maybe we just gave them a pass bearing in mind that do bands change.
The lyrics in their newer tracks no longer crawl up your skin. From here, the determining factor of their continued success is fringed upon the continuation of this poppy direction. Or will their instincts once again take over, and restore honor to the fabled glory of iPods around the world?
Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond
A night before they take the stage at Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival, California’s Cold War Kids will make a stop in Richmond as part of their North American Tour entertain us with that all too familiar sound we’ve come to love since they delivered their debut album, Robbers & Cowards 12 years ago.
And tonight at The National, the jangly rock band will give us a taste of all of the hits with their latest release, Audience, a live album which was recorded during a show at the Georgia Theatre last year. The 16-track collection, which includes favorites like “Hang Me Up To Dry” and “Hospital Beds”, is the follow-up to 2017’s L.A. Divine, their last studio album.
Forming in 2004 in Fullerton, California, the group decided to make the move to Long Beach, which is where they began to carve out their own aesthetic of off-kilter piano jabs by Matthew Schwartz (keyboard and piano, percussion) and David Quon’s twinging slide guitar to accent Nathan Willett’s jarring vocals, particularly in early hits like “Saint John” and “Against Privacy”.
Cold War Kids have been out on the road since March, starting out on Texas, and jumping all over the country, with stops at major music festivals, and other music halls in Kentucky. Tennesse, Ohio, and North Carolina. Their tour will wrap up near the end of this month.
The band will undoubtedly feature songs from their new album as well as some of the expansive and ambitious efforts of their previous works from the 12-years since their debut release. “The excitement I have about this new album—it feels so much like the way I felt back when our first record came out,” said bassist Matt Maust in a press statement.
The follow-up to 2014’s Hold My Home – featuring the gold-certified singles like “First” and “Miracle Mile” Now- their sixth album LA Divine pays tribute to their adopted hometown of Los Angeles.
Upon first glance, LA Divine seems to merge that artful, anthem-hook style production with the signature Cold War Kids’ raw post-punk; its punk-pop but actually good. The production is still complex but far more vulnerable, a clear sign the band seems ready to come out into the light and re-establish their roots. Though I’m sure many in attendance still probably want to hear the sound of Cold War Kids we all continue to cherish over the radio and I’m sure the band will leave everyone more than satisfied.
Cold War Kids hit the stage at The National tonight at 8 pm. Doors at 7 pm and if you haven’t gotten your tickets yet, you can snag them online for $23 or at the door for $25.
Music Sponsored By Graduate Richmond