I quite liked the Cold War Kids' debut album Robbers & Cowards, especially the song We Used to Vacation, a shambolic yet soulful story of a hopeless alcoholic father. There was almost something Jeff Buckleyesque in Nathan Willett's vocals that made my spine shiver a little, and there was something a bit rough and sordid about the narratives in their songs that suited their gritty, bluesy sound. Their sophomore album Loyalty to Loyalty just released on September 23, and while it still maintains some of the soulfulness and bluesiness of the first album, I have to admit that I'm disappointed with it as a whole. There are moments when it just feels like they're searching for a tune and for an authenticity that just isn't there. I don't believe that they believe in what they're singing this time - it's like the first album made me think of sepia-toned photographs and this one is still sepia-toned...but manufactured in Photoshop. Willett's distinctive yelp used to add emotional meaning to the songs, but by the end of this album, it just feels hollow and grating.
Against Privacy begins the album with a smattering of cymbals, a lackadaisical backbeat, and guitars which somehow end up sounding like muted trombones. With its political lyrics and persistent groove, it promises more than the album actually ends up delivering. It is followed by Mexican Dogs, which is also one of the better songs on the album with its tight shuffle and warbling guitars. Every Valley is Not a Lake had already made an appearance on the Hang Me Up to Dry single last year, and it still grooves just as wonderfully as the first time I heard it - I absolutely love that gritty piano line. It's just unfortunate the only song that really makes an impression on me is one I heard a year ago. After these first three tracks, the album
I'm still trying to puzzle out what I think about Something is Not Right With Me, the lead-off single for the album; it borrows from shouty electro, but with pounding piano instead of synthesizers and electric guitars - it's like the White Stripes go disco. Perhaps something is just not right with it. It is at this point that the album descends into a nondescript blandness with songs like Welcome to the Occupation, I've Seen Enough, and Dreams Old Men Dream. On the track Golden Gate Jumpers, Willett's voice sounds like Rufus Wainwright against a honky-tonk backdrop, and Willett returns to a Wainwright vocal sound on the track On the Night My Love Broke Through, but it lacks the gentle tenderness and simplicity of a song like Robbers off the debut album. The fact the Buckley vocals have seemingly slipped further towards a Wainwright sound implies a move from fragile soulfulness into vaudeville theatricality.
The nadir of the whole record is Avalanche in B, which is composed of a muffled, drunken-sounding vocal and a beat that is so laden in the back that it drags the song into a rather muddled unpleasantness. Every Man I Fall For is an admirable attempt at telling a story from the opposite gender's point of view, but the sentiment gets lost in the underwhelming melody. Like Something is Not Right With Me, the penultimate track, Relief, utilizes some buzzing electronic elements, and with Willett's falsetto, they almost pull it off; somehow these forays into the electronic still don't seem quite natural. The album ends with Cryptomnesia, a song that showcases Willett's voice as the piano and brushed drums fade into the background before swelling to meet his yelping crescendo, and while I would think that such a build-up would move me, the song simply fails to.
As with most bands that had great debut albums, I really wanted to like Cold War Kids' sophomore effort, but I didn't get any of those spine shivery moments on this album but for the one song that had been released last year. The dirty spirituality has dissipated into a meandering sludge and the honesty behind the lyrics of songs like We Used to Vacation seems to have disappeared as the band oversteps its boundaries of life experience and abilities to imagine. I probably shouldn't have bothered with this post at all, but I suppose sometimes I'm done in by my own sense of loyalty.