Cold War Kids – Robbers and Cowards (2007)

Tambourines and pianos are not what I expect from indie rock music. Neither is funk. Fitting in nicely with my cross-genre approach, and indicating a nice splattering of influences, Cold War Kids made the scene their own – big internet presence, couple of good EPs (most of which make up this album) and a reputation for having a blinding live show meant exposure.

Except, of course, to me – a completely unknown quantity, they popped up on Jools Holland back in May, and my housemate and I both thought they were a pretty funky bunch of brothers, even if they were skinny, white and from California. The only song we caught was Tell Me In The Morning, a seriously tight song – no idea what he’s quite on about, but hey, when did that ever matter?

In fact, I went out and bought the album the very next day. This was a habit of mine (I bought We Are Scientists’ debut with no prior listen – just the fact that I liked the cover… ditto Holly Golightly, Band Of Horses, etc) and on a properly deep listen, I loved this disc for, oh, two weeks. Thing is, they do sound like they’re trying really really hard, and that’s something I find rather off-putting after a while.

Massive tempo changes can work quite well, as can the half-time break, but doing it on a lot of your songs turns a clever trick when used sparingly into a device that loses its novelty really rather fast. Opening track We Used To Vacation has nice bits of piano dissonance, a great little guitar line, and a dark tale of alcoholism, while the chorus has a lovely little half time feel to it, surprising when first heard. Hang Me Up To Dry keeps the speed uniform, with more piano soloing, which sounds like the pianist/singer/guitarist Nathan Willets has listened to a bit of the old avant-garde jazz, or at least the Velvet Underground/Zappa axis of craziness (sorry George W, great phrases are always manipulated by the little people).

Tell Me In The Morning kicks out another of those half-timers, but with a dual guitar attack, more tambourines and the sound starts to wear thin, even if my head gets its groove on repeatedly. Initially, you start to think about this band, as they want you to think, but then I realised that basically, if a band is asking me to think, instead of simply requiring it (Coltrane era Monk, perchance?) then that turns me off. I don’t mind putting in effort, but not if that’s because the band are trying hard to be clever.

At least Cold War Kids make up for this with groove – they have groove in spades. Every epic drum roll, tambourine shake, ostinato-ed phrase and soulful vocal get my head bobbing and often, can get the hips shaking and grooving too. Hair Down is a rare exception, the tension building, but not exactly releasing, as the tight winding music never unwinds into a glorious ending, just sort of falls to a disappointing close. Still, it sets up two of my favourite tracks on the disc – Passing The Hat and Saint John. The former, a song about stealing the money from a church collection plate to escape the US, and the latter, a classic prison song about defending the honour of his sister, both have wonderfully groovy, paranoid, overbearing musical backdrops, and Willets’ best vocals.

The trio of Robbers, Hospital Beds and Pregnant are a respite from the jerky grooves of the earlier songs, but can function as too much of a slow-down – by the time I usually get to Red Wine, Success!, the lyrics I can make out and the yearning of his voice have got far too much. God, Make Up Your Mind is a waste of disc space, and really, the fat could be trimmed as from Hospital Beds to the end of said track. At least they pull out a blinder with the final track, Rubidoux; even though he discusses the “romantic Isle Of Wight”, a strange idea from someone in California (unless there’s an Isle Of Wight from their way, he must be referring to the lump of rock just south of Southampton), every detail is finally got right here – the guitars trill, the chords chime, the vocals yearn, and even though the half-time trick pops up, again, it’s worthwhile.

Just lose the bonus track – I don’t want 11 minute tracks on the end of albums, unless it’s eleven minutes of wigging out. Especially if all I’m going to get is a demo quality (or, a song designed to sound like demo quality – a trait I detest) of the singer working out his poetic issues with his acoustic guitar.

It has faults, many of them, but Robbers and Cowards really does have an irresistibly groovy atmosphere, at least for the fairly consistent first side. I’d give it a spin, have a dance, then put on Spoon – they do the same thing, without annoying bits, or the slightly preachy overtones. Still, have a dance, have a bounce, and I think I’ll wait and see what they pull out next.

6.5/10

Key Tracks: We Use To Vacation/Hang Me Out To Dry/Passing The Hat/Saint John/Rubidoux

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