The term impressive debut seems like a cliche these days. Bands are hyped up, mass marketed, mass produced and highly promoted before they even finish their first major tour. Then, before you can say Franz Ferdinand, a sophomore slump sets in and the group eventually descends into all kinds of debauchery — and the music inevitably suffers. It’s hard to believe that the Cold War Kids will fall into this unfortunate, but all too likely, pattern. There is too much emphasis placed on the music and less on the hackneyed shtick that tends to sell albums.
Robbers & Cowards was supposed to be released amid a flurry of excitement while the band embarked on the US leg of a well-publicized tour with The Futureheads. Instead the elusive Britpop harmonizers bailed, leaving the Cold War Kids to fend for themselves amid the desolate, expansive venues usually accustomed to accommodating a sizable audience of pop-punkers.
Anyhow, these children of the ’80s are forging ahead, bringing their energetic nouveau-blues to willing crowds around the country before traveling across the pond to tour Europe . And it’s too bad that Cold War Kids have not received the media hype that comes along with a Futureheads tour — the attention would have been well deserved. Robbers & Cowards displays one infectious blues riff after another. Jangly guitars, buoyant high hats and Nathan Willet soulful croon pervade throughout, giving us a glimpse into the band’s energetic sound.
Perhaps the most poignant track on the album is “We Used to Vacation” — a piano-driven anecdote from a despondent alcoholic. The song chronicles a man’s broken promises and recurring addiction. His sickness eventually destroys his family life, leaving irreparable damage behind. The singer falls off the wagon and into a perpetual state of denial, “Still things could get much worse… this will all blow over in time.”
The Cold War Kids then dredge in the “muck and the mire” on “Hang Me Out to Dry”, where an arresting bass riff is only outdone by Willet’s submissive, pleading wail on the chorus. Another booming contemplative track is “Saint John”, a terse description of a death row inmate awaiting the inevitable while feeling the shame of his deeds. The galloping verse evolves into a faux hip-hop pace — the progression, however, is natural and undetectable by the average listener.
The album does mellow out toward the end with “Robbers”, a villain’s confessional — “Robbing from the blind is not easy,” Willet naively croons in the high registers. Then there’s the melancholy “Pregnant”, which is more about being filled with doubt than with nascent life. The song begins with a gentle whistle before Willet’s soft voice floats above an acoustic guitar and an indecipherable intercom system. Appropriately enough the album ends with “Sermons vs. the Gospel”, an utterly sincere gospel tune.
More than just being an impressive debut, Robbers & Cowards may be a harbinger of things to come from these Reagan baby blues rockers. Although the band will certainly garner comparisons to popular contemporaries The White Stripes and Raconteurs, their soul-inflicted indie rock is more subtle and honest than Jack White’s various projects. So, if you happened to purchase tickets to an upcoming Futureheads show, don’t fret. These ambitious youngsters (sans Futureheads) are definitely worth the trip, even without the ostentatious vocal harmonies.