Long Beach blues rockers Cold War Kids release their fourth album at somewhat of a career crossroads.
Early industry buzz gathered pace in 2006 with the unveiling of debut album ‘Robbers & Cowards‘; containing a soulful, guttural blues tinged collection of tracks which announced the band as worthy White Stripes-era contemporaries, where edgy indie rock still featured prominently amongst the hipster blogosphere and music charts either side of the Atlantic.
A solid follow-up in ‘Loyalty To Loyalty‘ arrived two years later, although it was the release of 2011’s ‘Mine Is Yours‘ which appeared to rile critics and sections of the band’s fanbase alike.
There was perhaps an unsympathetic focusing on the influence former Kings of Leon producer Jacquire King had on the noticeable shift in direction of the band’s sound into unfamiliarly clean, arena rock territory. Initially, this was seemingly a far cry from the grassroots aesthetic forged earlier, but after repeated listens it failed to mask the affecting sum of its parts, including the adept songwriting craft and distinct, expressive vocalisation of lead singer Nathan Willett.
Approaching work on fourth LP, ‘Dear Miss Lonelyhearts’ must have been something of an anomaly in this sense, with a now skewed public perception of how the band’s sound could truly be defined knowingly sifting through the Californian studio space. Would the first album to feature former Modest Mouse axeman Dann Gallucci take a further stride away from their original style? Or would a return to earlier DIY blues-punk roots which initially won the hearts and minds of fans in the first place be on the cards?
Lead track ‘Miracle Mile‘ immediately signals a rousing statement towards the former, with frenetic ragtime piano in the mould of earlier tracks building to catchy, uncomplicated vocal repetitions of ‘come up for air, come up for air’, as the drums and guitar canter alongside the piano instrumental to make for an assuredly minimalist pop-rock anthem.
The schizophrenic tendencies of the band soon become apparent however, with the pulsing synthetic dance grooves comprising ‘Lost That Easy‘ ironically representing a band still groping around in the dark for a musical genre to feel comfortable with as they attempt to grow up sonically. Staccato guitar punctuates the chorus, with Willett’s flexible vocal impressions landing on something representing a controlled shrill at its peak.
‘Loner Phase‘ offers a continued detour into previously uncharted, almost Clubland inspired dance beat repetition as Willett continually appears to sing over what sounds like a disconcerting Ibiza themed floor-filler, becoming an unusual amalgamation of genres for long-term listeners when matched with the more customary guitar parts.
Primal drumming and a meandering bassline on ‘Fear & Trembling‘ grounds proceedings to a more familiar level after the animated highs on the previous tracks. Willett’s disarmingly resonating high-pitched voice, complete with distressing cries of, ‘I want to tell you my thoughts, but my thoughts are scattered like crows’, pierce through the slow burning, grimy jazz blues and brass instrumental, inflecting strong feelings of raw emotion as a prime example of how, when the band tone the tempo down occasionally, it can often take shape as a truly touching piece of music.
Willett shows he’s able to mix-up inflections of soul singer referencing power with a dialled back crooning growl, as seen on the introspective ‘Tuxedos‘; a piano led tale of isolation and self consciousness, utilising the notion of wearing a tuxedo at a wedding as ‘a perfect disguise to be cool, and fill up your plate’. ‘Bottled Affection‘ begins as another curveball of electronica, before building to a near lyrically indistinguishable yet euphoric soaring falsetto chorus, holding enough interest before cutting out ahead of any feelings of nauseousness.
Potential single material and all round standout track ‘Jailbirds‘ sees a memorably spritely piano hook, creating a Kylie Minogue ‘Locomotion’-referencing slice of bubblegum pop, bouncing along memorably throughout, before ‘Water & Power‘ enters in the form of a nostalgic combination of chiming piano and a series of the band’s trademark jangly blues guitar chords.
Penultimate song and title track ‘Dear Miss Lonelyhearts‘ creates an immediately atmospheric vibe, with punctuations of rippling lead guitar and irregular tribal background drumming alongside a reverberating bassline, developing into a series of lightly ambient rhythm guitar strumming without ever truly rising into an expected crescendo. ‘Bitter Poem‘ rounds off proceedings initially as a fitting tranquil lullaby backed by keyboard effects, until the introduction of heavy lead guitar and a drum machine awaken the listener from drifting off into contented slumber.
While the added smattering of dance infused sheen may appear a bizarrely ill conceived mismatch in a desperate attempt to reach new heights while still stomping over old ground, likely testing the patience of hardened fans who’ve kept the faith in recent years in the process, it’s a small blight on a record still containing plenty to offer for the majority, reminding us why the band were such an intriguing prospect in the first place.