We're the Cold War kids in many ways – our cultural, political, and economic inputs were strongly influenced by the bipolar juxtaposition of two power blocs in the world as we grew to adulthood. The knowledge of the Other was always there, even if we chose to deny it with our 'non-aligned' stance. Listening to the first full-length album from the California band Cold War Kids brought home many memories, or perhaps nostalgic reflections.
The band combines emo with alt-rock and Dylan-esque lyrics to produce an overall satisfying album, many of whose tracks were released earlier as EPs. The band was a hit at the 2006 SXSW and Lollapalooza festivals, and will be touring this year with the White Stripes. They are signed to the Downtown Records label, also home to Gnarls Barkley and Kevin Michael.
The album begins with an ominous rattle in a song about the dangers and allure of alcoholism, "We Used To Vacation". A workingman 'stumbles out the room' at noon, only to 'run up a tab/on 7th and flower'. His violent streak is accentuated by the alcohol, the menacing rattle serving as an undertone of rising tension, while he consoles himself that 'things could be much worse/natural disasters on the evening news/…/we still got our health/my paycheck in the mail'. He protests that he's 'an honest man/provides for me and mine' and that 'this will all blow over in time', but we know that he'll be back for another drink, another one for the road, and to 'sink into oblivion'. The song culminates in a cappella voices and discordant piano chords.
The next song, "Hang Me Up To Dry" seems a more uplifting song, full of joie de vivre and being 'careless in our summer clothes splashing around/in the muck and rain', but has a self-aware dangerous sense of being beaten down once too often. He pleads to 'hang me up to dry/you wrung me out/too too too many times'. The song is a continuous chorus as it were, and has a clockwork-style accompaniment.
Just like the great male endeavour, historically, has been to reform and reshape the world in their own image, it is indubitably the great female endeavour to reshape/reform their men in an idealized manner. "Tell Me In The Morning" deals with the male ennui of facing this unstoppable female force and pleading to 'save it for the morning'. the singer acknowledges that his mate 'would like/like to change me/make me softer' and that he has in the past 'shouted questions like a fierce fire', while she's 'tried to take me by the arm/into the light', He's now 'almost over', but confesses to 'one more thing' – 'self deception' and that he's been his 'own thief in the night'. The second half of the song is a subtly reworked version of the first, where he recognizes his own need to 'be my own teacher' and how she 'tried to take me into your arms and lead me to the light'. In the end, men would not be complete without the female reformation as it were, or perhaps, without getting in touch with their inner selves, as the song seems to hint at.
"Hair Down" is another interpersonal bathetic song, accompanied by a rattle and a hum. The song is almost naked, the singer's voice rising above the minimalistic chords. This song is about 'conversations that went on terrible paths', and the colors of memory, remembering the way we all felt growing up, when 'we were still just babies/dreaming of the sixties/…/dressing up in rags with our wallets full'. This juxtaposition of post-modern consumerism with the idealism of the Cold War years is immediately contrasted with the barrenness of modern inner lives, when 'our pockets are shallow/our quart running low'. The music comes to the foreground in the final notes of the song, overpowering the insight that 'true love it waits', related to the second theme of the song, and indeed the album – the space between two people who have lived together almost all their lives.
"Passing The Hat" goes deeper in Cold War waters, with a representative of the masses filching from the 'offering hat', perhaps as his just rewards while 'sweat from my brow drips to my shaking knees'. He is especially suited to comment on the souring of the American Dream, being a hard-working immigrant from the 'sweet sweet O Baltic Sea', across the Iron Curtain, or perhaps one leaving the golden shores and demanding 'a small sacrifice to benefit one man's journey away from America's seas'.
"Saint John" is a very dark song about 'old st. john on death row' and 'all the white boys in the stay-pressed slacks'. The 'white boys' are 'home for the summer' and are 'staying out late, getting rowdy at the bar'. Things go wrong when they mess with a young girl coming home 'with a clerk dress on'. This is noticed by the singer, who realizes 'that girl was my sister'. He throws a brick at the 'tallest boys face', and 'he would never move again'. There nothing very deep about this song, but like a Stephen King novel, the characters and images linger as the song drifts away.
"Robbers", the title track is a critique of urban culture, where "we need protection from street thugs/who clip the tires/and rip the doors off rugs/and cowards". This life is ' it's not easy, you see/don't think I don't know sympathy/ my victims in my shadow /starin' back at me'. The chords are gentle and minimalist, ending with a fade-to-black effect.
"Hospital Beds" is an uptempo number about lying 'in bed at the hospital' and how we don't choose who's lying across from us, 'sharing hospital/joy and misery'. We share stories 'of how you ended up here', and take in all the 'nurses fussing/doctors on tour/somewhere in India'. I especially liked the chord arrag
"Pregnant" is a lyrical stream-of-consciousness take on success, or just an experiment in clever song-writing. Either way, the extreme minimalism and slowed-down chant don't quite work for me.
"Red Wine, Success" is another song about the souring of the American dream, and realizing that "success, success, it's smile and saccharin". The lyrics don't quite fit together in this song, probably an intentional effect but delivering a sense of hearing one side of a conversation with no context. ('Lives his life a painful and loving day/In the history of a great pregnancy'.)
The penultimate song, 'God, Make Up Your Mind' is a vignette of childhood road trips 'from New York to New Orleans/played alphabet/Kansas to Boise/won a battleship/…/daydream about Maria in California'. It uses the slowed-down tempo style, although it works better with this song, and is ratcheted up a couple of times, before lapsing back to slowdom. It hearkens back to the sixties, ruminating that 'you wanna help someone/you gotta be a no one/that's what I figured out/the cat on the street meant.'
The final song, 'Rubidoux' features some exquisite lyrics and a fast-paced tempo. The song is set in the township of Rubidoux in Riverside County, California.The imagery of 'shattered windshields of spidered ice' contrasts with 'empty desert light'. There is a noir sense to the song, referencing 'bourbon and a pistol in the dash, out of sight', cautioning that 'the life you have chosen is filled with dirty finger nails/and lost and found/and canceled appointments.'
It's a fine way to wrap up an album that unsettles while creating memorable word-pictures, coupled with alt-rock notes in the wasteland of the post-Cold War years.