Three of the four members of Los Angeles-based indie rockers Cold War Kids met at an evangelical Christian college. A sense of rowdy preaching is infused in the music, as the quartet fuses blues, rock, and big-tent revival showmanship into their music.
Their debut was 2006’s Robbers & Cowards, a critically-acclaimed piece that sprang up out of the well with lush textures and impressive energy. 2008’s follow-up, Loyalty to Loyalty, captures much of the same energy and lurches forward with the frenzied infatuation of a preacher with a bible in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the other.
Praise the Lord!
Frontman Nathan Willett is in charge of the proceedings, wielding a guitar and a keyboard along with his vibrato-heavy vocals. He rarely finds the right key, purposefully I’d imagine, and coats each song with a sort of unchecked ferocity and a dose of Robert Plant. Matt Maust’s bass, Jonnie Russell’s guitar, and Matt Averio’s percussion fleshes out the Cold War Kids experience.
One of the things that really struck home about Robbers & Cowards was the storytelling. Songs described a cast of characters that resembled the sort of anti-hero stuff that graphic pulp novelists would be proud to own, including a death row inmate set to die for killing his sister’s would-be rapist and a drunk who keeps letting down the people he loves.
Loyalty to Loyalty offers us more of these sinners and superbly arranges their sins around melodies that conjure the bravado and southern range of legendary bands like CCR.
Take the 2:23 burner “Something Is Not Right With Me,” for instance. Willett anxiously chases his own tail while the band’s resolute but simple music-making fills the air. “You said you like old cars, I bought a beat up brown Dodge, it was smoking black and died in your front yard,” he shouts while jumping up and down urgently.
Musically, there’s unfussiness to the energy of Cold War Kids. The songs are built on Willett’s unremittingly bashing of the keyboard and a solid groove from the rhythm section. “Mexican Dogs” showcases more guitar than some of the other songs, beginning with a robust thump and rolling through with a nice bass-and-drum combination.
But it’s the storytelling that really sets Loyalty to Loyalty apart. The whole album is a production, a vision of gospel-loving Southerners trying to spread the word via rock and blues. Don’t get me wrong, though. This ain’t no Christian record; the Cold War Kids are not DC Talk. Shit, they aren’t even Underoath.
It would be silly to deny the obvious spiritual element in Willett’s economical and fresh lyrics, yet. “Every man I fall for drinks his coffee black,” he whines on “Every Man I Fall For.” It’s a song that cruises with the slow, sad blues. “It’s the law of diminishing returns.”
“Golden Gate Jumpers” is a terrifying, distressing song about the titular characters, but Cold War Kids don’t play it straight at all and add an almost honky-tonk vibe to it. “Against Privacy” describes dreams for a hippie bohemia worthy of Rent while Willett claims “History books will show, we’re sure that you’ll agree.”
Loyalty to Loyalty is a fun, exciting, adventurous, and sometimes scary album. Cold War Kids aren’t afraid of taking risks or of holding a big-ass tent revival without shame. The vocals are off-kilter and lively, so they may take some getting used to. But fans of audacious indie rock will find a lot to love here.