Cold War Kids – Behave Yourself EP

In one of the closing scenes of the short film that accompanied and documented the making of Cold War Kids’ second studio offering (Loyalty to Loyalty, 2008) the band members are seated around a kitchen table discussing which songs from their recording sessions will be making the final cut of the album.

Drummer Matt Aveiro doesn’t pull any punches. “I’m hard-line no on ‘Something is Not Right with Me,’ ” he says, referring to what would end up being the album’s first single. Bass player Matt Maust immediately responds, “I’m pretty… the opposite.” It’s kind of funny but it’s also tense; you wonder what the conversations were like once the cameras were gone and they really got down to brass tacks. A few frames before that the dapper Long Beach group had been bantering with one another about how long the album should be in its entirety. Aveiro seems to be lobbying for nine songs. Guitarist Jonnie Russell chuckles with incredulity at frontman Nathan Willett’s suggestion of twelve. Willet apparently had the last laugh. The final version of the record weighed in at thirteen tracks.

A year and a half later CWK announced they’d be releasing an EP consisting of several songs that had either hit the cutting room floor during post-production or been laid down since. After all that debating, and all that time spent working with Kevin Augunas of Fairfax Recorders, the man that helmed the decks for their debut, it’s hard to understand why the unreleased Loyalty track (Santa Ana Winds) didn’t make the cut. It is in some ways harder still to grasp how the band that recorded the two other songs and the rambunctious Robbers and Cowards could have produced such a wandering, lackluster sophomore effort. All three of the new songs (the fourth is a remake of “The Sermons vs. the Gospels,” an early demo which appeared in rough, unedited form as a hidden track at the end of their debut) pop and roll with an energy absent on much of Loyalty.

The disc opens with “Audience,” a mid-tempo groove built out of rolling piano chords welded onto the frame of Aveiro’s understated, in-the-pocket drumming. Augunas has further refined the idiosyncratic bass tones Maust employed on earlier recordings such that his rig spits out wobbles and burps more rubbery and ionized than anything we’ve heard to date. Willett’s stream of consciousness lyrics have always walked a fine line. Here, as on Loyalty to Loyalty, they sometimes wear thin. What worked on “Hospital Beds” now flirts with incoherence; the found object metaphors, the images that border on free association.  He’s still telling a story and while it’s fine, even necessary that we’ll never know exactly what story that is, the lyrics fail to carry the same kind of narrative punch present on so many of the tracks on Robbers. Still, the power of the hook, the rolling drums, and the earnestness with which Willett sings of playing for “an audience of one” combine to weave a thread of strength nearly as taut, if not anthemic, as that which wound through their greatest early single, “Hang Me Up To Dry.”

From its opening to its close “Coffee Spoon” rides a series of lilting, mournful guitar lines that showcase the exuberance, playful improvisation and raw, frenetic intelligence Jonnie Russell can channel when given room to maneuver. His tone is still soaked with reverb and is accompanied at one point by a robust electric organ. Willett’s vague lyrics work better here, particularly when they don’t take themselves too seriously; ie. celebrating lent with a candle in a tent. The song succeeds, against significant odds, in striking a balance between the somberly mysterious and the joyful.

“Santa Ana Winds,” a paean to Los Angeles rich in imagery, evokes scenes from the modern city by way of references to the J. Paul Getty Museum, Olvera Street, and the titular winds that wreak regular havoc driving wild fires into the wealthy canyon estates east of the city. As vivid as these snapshots are there come moments, as with the second verse’s nod to Joan Didion, when the mood verges on pretentiousness. And then there’s that obscure use of metaphor again. It seems as though Willett is forever destined to be both hamstrung and blessed by his facility for abstraction. On the one hand you want to give him the benefit of the doubt, extending the same generosity you would for, say, Paul Simon when he’s singing about lasers in the jungle and rivers shining like national guitars on “Graceland.” But sometimes you’re jarred out of the moment, out of the story. In those moments you become an observer rather than the participant you want to be.

“Santa Ana Winds” takes advantage of a punchy, staccato rhythm that’s become a trademark part of the group’s sound. Extra percussion floats like dirty driftwood through a swirling mix in which everything comes across as having been recorded live, in the same room, at the same time. It’s not a sound everyone can pull off and the So-Cal quartet succeed with panache. They’ve always valued aesthetics, from their design work to their website, and certainly in their music. This latest offering sees them as unrepentant as ever in their commitment to a live, analog sound.

For a band that commands as much sex appeal and hipster cred as CWK do, and given the stylized nature of their music as well as the at times unbelievably shrill voice of their lead singer, it’s truly amazing that they don’t come off as trying too hard or seem half-baked more often. In fact the opposite is true on Behave Yourself. The songs are a return to form. Which is not to say that Loyalty to Loyalty wasn’t indicative of a real part of the band’s sound.  It was.  The newer material’s just better, once again capturing and evoking the energy with which the group’s live performances have always crackled.

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