In poring over what’s already been written about Fullerton, CA’s Cold War Kids, the artists to which they seem to be most frequently compared are The Pogues, Tom Waits and Jeff Buckley. Now there may be some vague truth to this, particularly when it comes to influence, but honestly, I just don’t hear any of it. There’s no Irish pub punk, there’s no seedy graveyard mambo, and frontman Nathan Willett certainly doesn’t sound like Jeff Buckley. Ryan Adams, maybe, but that’s neither here nor there. I mean this as no disrespect to the band, I just think that anyone who picks up Robbers & Cowards expecting to hear Rain Dogs or Grace might be a little disappointed to hear something that sounds more like a gospel-inflected Walkmen.
Now, on the positive side, a gospel-inflected Walkmen isn’t such a bad idea, when it comes right down to it. Cold War Kids have a sound and style with a lot of character, and a lot of that has to do with Willett. Unlike Hamilton Leithauser, this fella sings without screeching or Dylanesque moans. Rather, he’s projective and emotional, drawing upon soul and, of course, gospel singers. This wouldn’t make all that much sense in an indie rock setting if the music didn’t match, and sometimes, it seems a bit incongruent. The hard-grooving “Hang Me Up to Dry” is one such example, sort of the band’s own “I Turn My Camera On,” which works, but for no reasons I can logically explain.
On a track like “Hospital Beds,” however, Willett’s impassioned vocals mesh well with the epic pop arrangement, made all that much stronger by the band’s reliance on piano, an instrument that is all too often cast aside by these scruffy blogger-approved types. And on recovering alcoholic tale “We Used to Vacation,” the combination of dramatic storytelling with moody piano rock makes for a winning one. That said, not everyone will find Willett’s voice so easily likeable. It gets a little grating at times, particularly considering he rarely shifts volumes (meaning he’s that loud all the time). But he’s a showman, and I don’t begrudge him that.
Though they aren’t the stereotypical indie rock poster boys, Cold War Kids shouldn’t have a hard time winning over a larger audience with their full-length debut. And considering they live in the O.C., a guest spot almost seems inevitable. If it isn’t, Seth Cohen should start shuffling through the Hype Machine.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.