Cold War Kids: Robbers & Cowards

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Robbers & Cowards
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Downtown Records
Released: 2006
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The sudden rise of the Cold War Kids can, in part, be attributed to the new model of music distribution. Over the course of 2005 and early 2006, the Kids released three six-song EPs – Mulberry Street, With Our Wallets Full, Up in Rags – on the boutique label Monarchy Music. In the last year, the band became a big hit with the bloggers and shortly thereafter, the Cold War Kids started to sell out shows to audiences that embraced the group’s high energy live shows by singing along to almost every one of their songs. Word of mouth spread like wildfire, and the band developed a strong following even though they had not yet released a full-length CD on a major (or even moderately-sized) label. A few months ago, the Cold War Kids remedied that situation, signing with Downtown Records – home of Gnarls Barkley and Art Brut – which subsequently released Robbers & Cowards in October. It’s a powerful story about how the internet has changed music, and not just in theory. A talented band no longer has to hope to be discovered by some faceless record executive to get the exposure required to become a star. In today’s world, a good live show and word of mouth is just as important.

Robbers & Cowards is largely made up of songs originally released on the With Our Wallets Full and Up in Rags EPs, though the band re-recorded all of them in Los Angeles in August and September, while also laying down two new tracks for the full-length. Robbers starts off strong with two of the best songs of the year. In “We Used to Vacation,” frontman Nathan Willett sings from the first person as an alcoholic father who can’t seem to make the right decision. Willett has an incredibly soulful voice, which is the foundation of most of the band’s work, though musically the band compliments his vocals well. The track breaks down as it enters the chorus, which describes the empty promises of an addict. “Hang Me Up to Dry” isn’t overtly about any one thing, but seems to describe a relationship where one party has just simply had enough. In the track, the band gets a little carried away with the background noises – the sound towards the end (is it a fishing reel?) is a bit grating, but it’s a minor complaint. For another version of the song, where this particular sound is less obtrusive, check out the free session the band did at Daytrotter.

The third track that helped to fuel the band’s growing buzz is “Hospital Beds,” which describes the hopelessness of two older men who are forced to be roommates while they wait to die. Surprisingly, they find that they have things in common and form a strong bond. The lyrics – “Put out the fires, boys / Don’t stop, don’t stop / Put out the fire on us” – is their way of asking that the pain be washed away.

A certain music website played up the religious underpinnings in the Kids’ music then criticized the band for not embracing them. The truth is that the group doesn’t want to be known as a Christian rock band, nor should they. There are a few references to religion throughout the album, but it sounds as if the authors are struggling with their faith – with right and wrong – more than advocating any particular ideology. “Saint John” is sung from the point of view of an inmate that landed on death row after he defended his sister from a gang of rowdy college boys. One of the new songs, “Passing the Hat,” describes (again, in first person) the thought process of a churchgoer who steals money from the collection plate to pay for a trip to the Baltic Sea.

But one of the most interesting songs is “God Make Up Your Mind,” which follows a child prodigy as he goes on vacation with his parents. He’s struggling with a choice – does he use his special talents to “get his” or does he try to actually help people? The lyrics – “Why ain’t my teacher on a street sign? / He’s done so much more than politicians, dead musicians / You wanna help someone you gotta be a no one” – are especially poignant, if a tad preachy.

But that’s what this is all about – getting your point across. Whether the message is that chicks are hot, that drugs feel good, or that love hurts, every band has its agenda, no matter how inane. The Cold War Kids like to write catchy songs about man’s struggles with communication and moral ambiguity, which is not an easy feat. But somehow they pull it off.

~John Paulsen