The 1900s were terrible. Why? Because that little century just happened to bring us such unpleasant things like World War II, Mad Cow disease, and Vanilla Ice. Oh sure, a few good things came out of it (Led Zeppelin, mainly), but not even “Stairway to Heaven” could’ve prevented me from buying a Pet Rock, something that was—in retrospect—simply a rock that I wasted money on. Thanks for nothing, years 1900-1999!
Yet that century just might—might—be redeemed by a Chicago rock outfit that happens to call themselves the 1900s (not to be confused with the like-named 1990s). Consisting of seven members, the 1900s are nearly impossible to pinpoint in terms of influences. On individual songs, you can hear Colin Meloy’s nasal whine echoed in singer Edward Anderson’s voice, hints of the ramshackle violin charm that made “Come on Eileen” such a hit for Dexy’s Midnight Runners, all the while orchestral sections pop up that suggest Neutral Milk Hotel without any of the bombast. It’s the sound of early Fleetwood Mac filtered through an indie-rock aesthetic, Arcade Fire after popping a bottle’s worth of muscle relaxants, and Belle & Sebastian erasing the word “twee” from their vocabulary. With a dry and simple production sheen, Cold & Kind comes off as a record that doesn’t even make an effort to try and impress you. Perhaps that’s why it’s so impressive.
Earlier in the year, rock group Spoon released their stellar Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, and its secret to success was obvious: keep the arrangements simple and let the songs do the talking. The 1900s have taken this lesson to heart. Even though a swelling string section pops up on the gorgeous piano-opener “No Delay”, it never overplays its hand, it simply co-exists with the regular piano melody. The title track refines this tradition with unadorned guitar maneuvers that stand out, but never overwhelm. Even when the band gets a little funky on “When I Say Go”, the wild, erratic electric guitar solo (which wouldn’t have sounded too out of place on Wilco’s A Ghost is Born) doesn’t even last eight bars. The band just moves on to the next verse, as if they’re afraid to indulge themselves with flashy showmanship. Humility has never sounded so gorgeous.
Cold & Kind is an album that feels like a genuine album. It’s the kind of disc that warrants a straight-through listening, as the track sequencing is what gives it its power. “The Medium Way”, which sounds like a top-notch Bee Gees B-side, would have been a terrible opener. Yet, when following the ‘70s rock-influenced “Two Ways”, it works beautifully. The laid-back ballad “Georgia” would’ve sounded like a musical retread if placed later on the album. As the second track, its multi-tracked vocal harmonies simply prep you for the eclectic nature of Cold and Kind‘s ten other songs (including the simple and sweet hidden track at the end). Plus, late-album discoveries like the gorgeous, stunning highlight “Supernatural” sound best if you just stumble onto them naturally (instead of popping up randomly while your media player is on “shuffle” mode).
The band doesn’t do anything too lyrically exciting (unrequited love is a recurring theme), but the mix of male and female vocals create a cloud of vocal harmonies that makes every word sound gorgeous regardless of meaning. The lack of lyrical prowess isn’t meant as a swipe at the band, but this is a group that will be better remembered for its musical accomplishments than its lyrical ones. Yet boy, what an accomplishment Cold & Kind is. It’s an album of songs that are not only top-shelf, but also timeless. By not following hipster-indie trends, the 1900s have crafted an album of indefinite shelf life, one that can be popped into a CD player during a roadtrip, a lonely night in an apartment, or just about anywhere else. It’s an album so good, it almost makes you want to forgive the 1900s (the decade) for giving us cholera.
Actually, the 1900s are now officially forgiven. Way to go.