I remember the first time I heard about Cold War Kids. I instantly hated them. The name summoned up privileged teenage Californian college boys, hangin’ in the summer sun in their baggy pants, all whiney voices and crunchy power chords. Which is exactly what they were. I managed to avoid them for the most part of their career, filing them under ‘sub-Killers-filler’.
And then my girlfriend made a compilation for me, and one song got stuck in my head, with its never-changing two-chord slowed-down ‘My Sharona’ riff and impassioned vocal, coupled with an out-of-tune improvised piano solo and some utterly brilliant lyrics: “Careless in our summer clothes splashing around in the muck and the mire… fell asleep with stains, cake deep in the knees…what a pain”. This made me sit up and take notice. Here was great pop music, urgent, intelligent, immediate. This was ‘Hang Me Out to Dry’ by that very same band. I was hooked. A bit.
Whilst their other output has not always reached the same giddy heights as that brilliant single, Cold War Kids are, if anything, masters of duality. On one hand, generic indie-pop-rock catering for a cultishly mainstream audience of kool-kids; the other a band seemingly willing at times to embrace the avant-garde with a desire to flirt with danger, but always ever-so-slightly holding back from really going out-there. It’s a shame, for on Dear Miss Lonely Hearts there are genuine flashes of innovation.
Opening with the plinky-plonky-piano-led ‘Miracle Mile’, with its echoes of Supergrass teen-anthem ‘Alright’, the fist-punching-chest-beating motor never really lets up for the most part of the album. There’s energy and power for sure, yet so much blandness that the enthusiasm starts to grate after three or so songs. But then ‘Fear and Trembling’ kicks in and reminds you of what could have been – all moody discordant diminished minor sevenths and screaming horns, like the bastard 21st son of Ornette Coleman sung by a frat brat strung out on crystal meth. The title track ‘Dear Miss Lonely Hearts’ itself also packs an emotional punch, and there’s some fine pop tuning in pleasing closer ‘Bottled Affection’.
To hear even more of the band’s hidden experimental side, check out their weird and wonderful cover of Nick Cave‘s obscure rarity ‘Opium Tea’ which was released ahead of the album but not included here. All phaser pedal multi-tracked guitars, Beach Boys Smile era ‘ooohs’ and David Byrne-esque vocals circa Remain in Light, it points to a band who, given the will, freedom and space to take risks, might just grow into something a whole lot more interesting next album down the line. Don’t write them off just yet, but approach Dear Miss Lonely Hearts with a degree of caution and an open mind.