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A band with survival skills

Its vintage musical touches framing an au courant mind set, Cold War Kids builds on its early Web buzz.

September 22, 2008|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

Back in July, the Long Beach-based soul-punk quartet Cold War Kids played a semi-secret show at R Bar, a windowless, nautically themed club in Koreatown. The young and besotted crowd climbed over tables, chairs and the bar in hopes of getting a better view of the band bobbing on the floor. Singer Nathan Willett held court with righteous wails, while behind him bassist Matt Maust, drummer Matthew Aveiro and guitarist Jonathan Russell prowled the floor as if looking for a fistfight. They closed the night with "Saint John," a Muddy Waters-meets-Ian MacKaye vamp about a racially charged brawl.

Cold War Kids, which earned its stripes on the Silver Lake residency circuit, had long since graduated to Wiltern-sized theaters, a deal with white-hot Atlantic-affiliated indie label Downtown Records and album sales of its 2006 debut "Robbers & Cowards" in the low six figures. But it makes sense that in advance of its much-awaited follow-up, "Loyalty to Loyalty," out Tuesday, the band would return to the kind of scene where it honed a sound that tries to understand the present by digging up the imagery of the past.

The group took plenty of hits since rising to a national stage, not least an unexpected flurry of criticism over some members' Christian upbringings that, in certain taste-making Internet circles, seemed like a strike against four white kids in the L.A. orbit. But Willett has an apt word for the way history seeps into his songwriting today -- "Cryptomnesia," the title of the last track on "Loyalty."

"I read about cryptomnesia in a case where Vladimir Nabokov was accused of plagiarizing different parts of 'Lolita' from a book published 30 years before," Willett said. "If he'd been taken to court, the loophole was cryptomnesia, that you can have things slip into memory and not be held responsible."

In a lot of ways, Willett is the quintessential indie-rock frontman of 2008. He's lanky, freckled and adorned with both Harry Potter-ish round eyeglasses and colorful tattoos. Conversations with him are rife with literary allusions and references to artists from decades past, and in his newer songs he has a vogue penchant for singing in first person as characters unlike himself.

But the likely reasons that Cold War Kids have vaulted to the forefront of the L.A. rock world are often the most prickly elements of their sound. Instead of full chords or verse-chorus-verse structures, Willett's vocals are usually supported by distant guitar effects, crunchy bass grooves and smatterings of percussion. Open space is as important as any instrument, and Willett's lyrics tend to the macabre and stream-of-consciousness, like on "Dreams Old Men Dream": "Thought I was laying in the gutter in milk cartons and bones. . . . Thought I was on an island shooting flares at your boat."

Coupled with Willett's rangy and expressive voice, Cold War Kids sounds like nothing else on the radio. But the band admits that the simmering, brooding "Loyalty to Loyalty" is of a longtime tradition that chills the blood of major-label executives: the difficult second album that takes on politics.

"I definitely think we're not giving [the label] the radio record," said Maust. "It's like if you tell a painter, 'That's a good use of blue,' he's going to want to paint it over with red."

Downtown Records' chairman and co-founder Josh Deutsch was well-versed in the band's appetite for bleakness and the musicians' reluctance to replicate their breakthrough single "Hang Me Up to Dry." On a singles-heavy label alongside Gnarls Barkley, Justice and Santogold, Cold War Kids stands out as a band stubbornly committed to a dense and cohesive album-length statement.

"Nate takes on topics that are not in the mainstream," Deutsch said. "They represent artist development in a climate that doesn't support it."

Cold War Kids' songs always have played with classic songwriterly ideas of myth and archetypes, but "Loyalty" plants them firmly in the topical present. "Welcome to the Occupation" is inspired by the failures of the public school system (Willett taught at a Torrance school before the band took off) and evokes the war in Iraq. The sexual politics implicit in Willett, who is heterosexual, singing a heartsick ballad called "Every Man I Fall For" is startling, as is the winking self-criticism of album opener, "Against Privacy," in which the band coolly lays out ways in which it plans to pander to a skeptical audience.

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