Upbeat performances and pop-rock confidence can't hide a severe lack of creativity on the Californian band's fifth album.
Rock musicians can hide a lot behind a veil of confidence and brash attitudes. A high velocity guitar solo, for instance, can fill a gaping hole in a bland, changeless song; a cocky, overly theatrical singing style can pull focus from empty arrangements; layers of reverb and chorus effects can make even the simplest guitar riffs seem sonically stimulating. Listening to Hold My Home, Cold War Kids’ fifth full-length album, it appears the Long Beach rock band know all the tricks and more, and yet it’s still not enough to distract from a sad, sexless effort from a group who has been around long enough to know better.
It was surprising for me to discover that Cold War Kids are now officially a five-piece band. Their albums have never sounded lush or wholesome, and their arrangements are often left open -- still true on Hold My Home, if not more so -- so to learn that they were working with more than three or four musicians was weirdly frustrating. The verses in “First", for instance, are bare -- just solemnly struck piano chords and the “boom-clap” of the drums -- but even when the chorus kicks in with a fatter beat and bright, reverberated guitar picking (the main riff being a strangely unveiled rip-off the iconic guitar line in Band of Horses’ breakout song “The Funeral”), it just feels like an emaciated attempt at dynamic songwriting. “Go Quietly” is a pop-oriented track similarly saturated in subtle reverb effects that make the song sound sparse rather than filled-out, it’s ugly falsetto and relentless piano panging only making it more agitating.
The production of the album, on the other hand, is attractive, making the instrumentation clean and vivid, but it has very little to enhance when the songs themselves are so lackadaisical. Cold War Kids seem to be trying for a more upfront sound with the rhythm section pushed up in the mix, but there are very few ways to make piano-and-guitar rock music sound novel today, and the tameness of Hold My Home’s ideas prevents it from making any impression regardless of any smart production or technical proficiency.
The other notable direction that this album takes is toward greater commercial viability. Cold War Kids are clearly after more radio play and wider recognition with some of these upbeat tracks: songs like “All This Could Be Yours” take after the style of pop-rock superstars like Maroon 5 while the arena rock of “Hotel Anywhere” and “Nights & Weekends” behaves like a dull shadow of Joshua Tree-era U2 and modern contemporaries Kings of Leon, Bastille, and Imagine Dragons. Of course, frontman Nathan Willett’s voice, powerful as it is, is not nearly as dynamic as that of Adam Levine, Bono, or even Caleb Followill, and the band just can’t write the hooks to keep up. They seem like a band obsessed with sounding like their influences and their more successful contemporaries but musically incapable of emulating them.
Somewhere in the legacy of popular music, many artists forgot that rock culture was, at one point, meant to be challenging. After 50 years of dilution and stagnation, there doesn’t seem to be a way to return to straightforward rock music with the same power and rebellion that it once carried, but it doesn’t stop bands like Cold War Kids from trying. On Hold My Home, their attempt is a failure, featuring no virtuosity, no experimentation, no honesty, no power of any kind, just stodgy, empty confidence in place of anything worth saying. There’s no sense putting stock in the popular hyperbolic doomsayers who swear up and down that rock music is dead, but at this point, Cold War Kids definitely aren’t helping.