Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I have mixed feelings about Cold War Kids

It's hard for me to be objective about Cold War Kids, because they are my friends. Not that I see them all that much, but I lived with the guitarist Jonnie for a while, and they used to practice in the storage room of my apartment. I have sentimental attachment to the band because I know them, and they are good guys.

I watched with excitement as the band grew in popularity over the last three or four years. I watched as this garage band of skinny dudes from Orange County (well, now they live in Long Beach, which is where hipsters from Orange County move to) became bona fide rock stars.

The thing that I liked, originally, about Cold War Kids was the rawness of their sound. Their self-released EPs Up in Rags and With Our Wallets Full are really great rock/blues records. When they got signed to Downtown Records and released their debut album Robbers and Cowards (which was basically the EPs combined and recorded with a much bigger budget), I was happy for them, but I also felt like the album was more polished than the EPs, like it had lost some of its rawness.

With the exception of a couple tracks, I didn't care too much for their second album Loyalty to Loyalty. That's just a personal preference. I respect that record--it takes chances with non-traditional song structures and unique sounds, but, on a personal level, I just didn't dig the music too much.

I liked the Behave Yourself EP that they released after Loyalty to Loyalty. It was soulful and catchy. Catchiness in rock music is, however, a double-edged sword. Once a band goes down the road of trying to write catchy, radio-friendly songs, it's hard to turn back.

Which brings me to their latest record, Mine Is Yours, which was released today. I saw the music video for their new single "Louder Than Ever" about a week ago, and I didn't really like it. The video is a big budget, polished production, as is the song. I listened to the whole album today, and I felt like it was way more polished than their original music. I liked some of the songs, and the record is not bad. It's way more interesting and deep than most pop rock albums, but it is a clear direction toward radio-friendliness and accessibility, as opposed to avant-garde art, which is what the band was originally.

I've found myself thinking a lot about Cold War Kids today, because I honestly don't know what to make of their new album. It's polished, but it also demonstrates good songwriting. I thought the album seemed influenced by mid-career U2 albums like "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby." And, come to think of it, those albums were very produced-sounding, way more so than their earlier post-punk albums "Boy" and "War." I wonder if fans of U2 felt the same way I feel about Cold War Kids--that they had lost their edge (no pun intended).

The thing is, I really like "The Joshua Tree" and "Achtung Baby." Which raises the question: can a band be commercially successful without giving up their artistic integrity? Certainly there are bands that have managed to do it--Radiohead comes to mind--but what about Cold War Kids? They are still pretty young, and I feel like I know those guys well enough to know that they will never become the kind of sell-outs that Weezer became. But, how far are they willing to go? What are they willing to give up? How do they feel about this? Maybe I'll give Jonnie a call and ask him.

I wish nothing but the best for these guys, and I hope they manage to be commercially successful AND artistically successful, which is, admittedly, very hard to pull off.

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