Openers No More

The Cold War Kids have come a long way in the last six months

Good old-fashioned word of mouth can be an effective promotional tool.

Case in point: When San Francisco's Two Gallants performed in Tucson on April 7 at Solar Culture Gallery, they attracted their usual loyal fan base. But it was one of the openers on the bill, a relatively unknown band from California called Cold War Kids, who played a set so stunning that it had tongues belonging to even the most jaded music fans wagging the next day. And the day after that. And so on.

These days, the word-of-mouth equation has become an increasingly important phenomenon, largely due to the concept of blogging. Music bloggers have become virtual friends to music fans, who seek out bloggers who share their musical tastes, then rely on them for advice on bands to seek out--sort of the 21st century version of the music geek behind the counter at your local mom-and-pop record store. And while neither record store clerk nor blogger can make you like a band that you think sucks, they can bring a band to your attention that you might not have heard otherwise. Just as the clerk could throw the album on the store's stereo, the blogger can stream the band's music or, better yet, post MP3s of a couple of songs.

Shortly after Cold War Kids' appearance at Solar Culture, the bloggers caught on to them and began posting tracks from the group's three self-released, limited-edition EPs, available only at the band's shows and on its Web site. That's how I first heard them; I downloaded a pair of songs, which I immediately fell in love with. And I was surprised--though I probably shouldn't have been--when I went into a locally owned coffee shop a few days later and heard one of those songs being played on the cafe's stereo. It seemed as if this unknown band was suddenly becoming inescapable.

It didn't hurt that the band kept touring incessantly throughout the year, crisscrossing the United States four times already in 2006, as well as making their way overseas, drawing bigger crowds each time they returned to a particular city--including Tucson when they returned to Solar Culture in June, opening for fellow blog sensations Tapes 'n Tapes. And to top it all off, they landed a coveted slot at this summer's Lollapalooza festival in Chicago.

Cold War Kids soon had record labels nipping at their heels, and the band settled on Downtown Records, an upstart indie label with distribution through Atlantic that is home to such acts as Gnarls Barkley, Art Brut and Eagles of Death Metal. Somewhere between those tour dates, they decamped to a Los Angeles studio with producer Kevin Augunas. In two weeks, the band recorded new versions of songs from the EPs, plus two new songs, which were then mixed by Dave Sardy, who has worked with Johnny Cash, Oasis, Wolfmother and The Walkmen. The result, Robbers and Cowards, their full-length debut, was released on Downtown earlier this week, and goes a long way in explaining why people are talking about them in the first place. (The band could not be reached for comment for this article.)

When the band's members--singer and pianist Nathan Willett, guitarist Jonnie Russell, bassist Matt Maust and drummer Matt Aveiro--first began making music together, they had limited resources (e.g., no bass, one guitar to share among them), and a percussion-heavy sound that took its inspiration from the later work of Tom Waits, particularly his album Bone Machine. But as they've progressed, they've added elements both instrumentally and stylistically. Their music has the unusual quality of simultaneously sounding like there's a lot going on, and seeming somewhat restrained; each member seems to know intuitively when to play and when not to play. Acoustic piano figures heavily in the arrangements, co-mingling expertly and judiciously with the bass, percussion and guitar. And Willett's voice is a marvel--a swooping, soulful thing that has drawn comparisons to Jeff Buckley (though I'd argue that Willett is less operatic and dramatic than Buckley was).

As much ink as has been generated about Cold War Kids, their lyrical prowess always seems to get short shrift. Most of the songs are pithy character studies of people with a worried mind of some sort. There's the precocious 12-year-old sitting in the back seat of a station wagon on family vacation, more preoccupied with figuring out what the drawing of a dead cat that she just made means than looking out the window at the Grand Canyon ("God, Make Up Your Mind"); the man who realizes that the only friend he has is the fellow hospital patient with whom he shares a room ("Hospital Beds"); the guy who steals money from the offering plate in church and replaces it with a note explaining his disillusionment ("Passing the Hat").

And then there's "We Used to Vacation," the first and arguably most catchy song on Robbers and Cowards, a piano-driven pop song that alternates between ebullient and mournful, and whose lyrics are a study in economic storytelling worthy of Raymond Carver. It's the first-person account of a father trying to balance his family life with his anger-fueled--and now hidden--alcoholism. His delusion is apparent from the start, but grows more pronounced, and therefore more pathetic, as more details emerge: After promising his wife and children that he would quit drinking (he attends "meetings"), he misses his son's graduation and screws up in a host of other manners, justifying his actions all the while, until things get even more heartbreaking in the song's final three lines: "That accident left everyone a little shook up / But at the meetings I felt so empty / This will (all) blow over in time." When paired with its musical accompaniment it's devastatingly sad, and yet somehow strangely uplifting.

Cold War Kids' current tour sees them graduating from club-sized venues to larger theaters (they'll play at the Rialto here), though they were expected to remain as an opening act, this time for Brits The Futureheads. But when the headliners had to cancel due to a band member's tendonitis, Cold War Kids decided to forge ahead and play the larger venues themselves. Don't be surprised if they never return to opening-band status again.