Based solely on reviews of Cold War Kids third album Mine is Yours, tonight’s concert might not be worth the long drive to Toronto. The Long Beach band’s reputation as bare bones, soul infused star of the indie rock genre currently faces some heavily criticism from those who say their latest effort is a cheap attempt to break into the mainstream.
It’s hard to argue with results; Mine is Yours drastically departs from the rambling, narrative style the Cold War Kids have created in their seven year run. The album is undeniably more accessible, so, according to the logic of music critics, it sucks. Nonetheless, fans new and old fill out the charismatically and comically gothic Phoenix Concert Theatre, most of them sharing the same sentiments: Mine is Yours isn’t the betrayal reviewers make it out to be, but we’re hoping tonight’s setlist doesn’t favor the album too heavily.
Unsurprisingly, however, the band kicks things off with “Royal Blue”, one of those Mine tracks that sound remarkably unlike the Cold War Kids. The song’s building energy makes for a logical, but uninspired opener. For the next tune, guitarist Johnnie Russell takes to a saxophone to create the blaring, pulsating tones of “Cold Toes on the Cold Floor”. The song doesn’t register much attention in the context of Mine but “Cold Toes” immediately impresses in a live setting. The song attenuates what the Cold War Kids did best in previous efforts; Nathan Willett’s narrative lyrics over layered, sculpted melodies.
After “Mexican Dogs” from Loyalty to Loyalty, the familiar heavy bassline to “Hang Me Out to Dry”drops over the audience, to the relief of old school fans in the audience. One of the great criticisms laid upon Mine is its sing along choruses, but no song begs crowd participation tonight like the 2008 single. The highlight of a Cold War Kids concert is the bands stage presence.On songs like “Hang me out to dry”, Willet alternates between hammering the keyboard stage left and grooving at the center microphone while Russell and bassist Matt Maust orbit the stage like planets. Throughout the set, the two cover every inch of the stage, bouncing off each other and grabbing spotlight usually reserved for a frontman.
Later on, the band breaks out “Mine is Yours”, which sounds too watered down to be a title track. Tonight’s version of “I’ve seen enough”, however, steals the show. The song is three years old, but the live performance opens it up to those moments where a song you’ve overlooked comes alive and makes sense as the band puts it together on stage.
The band then slows things down a bit to play the creeping “Every Man I Fall For”. With Willett’s drawn out, introspective lyrics and the songs wining guitar, “Every Man I Fall For” sounds like a 3 a.m. therapy session. It’s an unsettling vibe that the band carries over into “Dreams Old Men Dream”, the fourth consecutive song from Loyalty.
After a few more goes at new material, including the cliché ridden single “Louder than Ever”, the main set ends with “Hospital Beds”. Two fans next to me have been calling for this one all night and, as the bouncing piano rings out, the crowd welcomes the old, reliable song.
Despite already engaging in one of the more active performances you could ever see, Cold War Kids have enough energy to play a four song encore, beginning with “Audience”. This was one of the group’s newer songs I looked forward to seeing performed live; the tempo and layered sound seem to lend themselves to the spontaneity and energy of the stage. It works, and the crowd sings along until the rattling, heavy intro to fan favorite “We used to Vacation” and steals the attention.
The last song of the night, “Saint John”, sums up Cold War Kids at their best. The song includes no guitar, instead Russell, hits the piano keys while finding time to play a cymbal and what looks like an empty vodka bottle. A lot goes into a song like this one; small details and complicated song structure separate Cold War Kids from the run of the mill alternative bands, let’s hope they hold on to that fact.