Let’s start this one off with a declaration, shall we? To be unfair and rather shallow, Nathan Willett is a hand me down Jeff Buckley. His vocals sway unconventionally and there’s this modest angst that hangs off each lyric, all very similar to Buckley’s late work, more specifically with Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk. But all things considered, Buckley was one hell of a vocalist, and so is the Cold War Kids’ meticulous frontman.
Let’s be fair, though. If Willett isn’t vocally original per say, his songs sure are, and that much was proved on 2006’s Robbers & Cowards. While an incredible album altogether, it’s seen more as a stellar debut, featuring some of the best songwriting of that year. Songs “Saint John”, “We Used to Vacation,” and “Tell Me In the Morning” sketched out stories that came off like short stories rather than simple blues songs. It’s this knack for storytelling that brought the band across America and into the arms of millions of fans, not to mention appearances at festivals everywhere.
Yet there’s something signature about this music. Maybe it’s the dark imagery, the cynical boundaries, or the bleak underbelly that’s all hidden amongst the standard rock sound. Or perhaps people like to feel better about themselves. One thing’s for sure, nobody relates to these characters carved by Willett, at least one probably hopes they don’t (“Hospital Beds”, anyone?). These are stories of convicts, of rapists, alcoholics… you know, the standard corruption of the soul humanity tries to shun. Though like a passerby near a car accident, we’re attracted to disaster, and such is the theme that pervades in the band’s follow up, Loyalty to Loyalty.
Much like previous single “Hang Me Up to Dry” was not much of an indicator for the album’s lyrical madness, the same can be said of “Something Is Not Right With Me.” The current single is bouncy, flamboyant, and fun, even if the lyrics aren’t necessarily to suit. However, the terrain it finds itself in is very snide, very bitter, and very visceral. Most, if not all, Americans will relate to album opener “Against Privacy,” the band’s personal “fuck you” to our nation’s finest. It’s all very Doors-ish, only Willett’s crooning from behind the organ and not the mic stand, yelping out lines like “We don’t gamble/We don’t do the stock exchange/We do painting/We write scenes for the stage” and “We’re waiting for your call/We’re against privacy.” It’s slow, but not too slow, and it translates well into “Mexican Dogs.” Thanks to the fuzz bass provided by Matt Maust, Willett’s able to churn out some catchy house calls (“Coca-Cola costs a quarter on my block”) and clever bites (“Like Mexican dogs, nobody gave us names.”) And if it’s any consideration, the stories are still there.
They’re just not that optimistic. Musically however, the band’s really reaching. On “Every Valley Is Not A Lake,” the inclusion of the ragtime piano is a savvy choice, giving Jack White a run for his money. Throw in Jonnie Russell’s rusty guitar licks and “Valley” makes for a killer blues song. Even better, there’s enough lyrical flavor to dissect, with rumblings about “welfare checks” and “baseball stadiums” among religious connotations, but one should expect the latter from this band. On the non-REM related “Welcome to the Occupation,” drummer Matt Aveiro comes rumbling in with jungle-like drum beats and the very finest of fills. If the title didn’t allude to it already, the song is more or less a rant on modern Americana, to which Willett insists, “The devil’s in the details/Got your gold watch and chain.” If that’s not depressing enough, there’s the suicidal fiction in “Golden Gate Jumpers” to hold you over, turning the ragtime piano over for some Randy Newman-like instrumentation.
There’s nothing really savory about “Avalanche in B.” Much of it owes itself to Radiohead’s Amnesiac, which isn’t so much a compliment as an awkward observation. Hollow vocals and too much respite come off not only overtly moody, but just plain boring. Although when Willett changes tone, shifts into the next song, and asks, “How’s it gonna feel when summer ends/Out of money, out of friends,” it’s the ol’ band again in top form, with “I’ve Seen Enough.” This demanding venture is a romp and stomp feature with hooks galore, though perhaps a minute too short. “Every Man I Fall For” is a courageous song lyrically, but instrumentally seems, well, redundant. “Dreams Old Men Dream” sees some faster elements, sporting a chorus that really sticks. Thanks to its verse’s nostalgic scuffle, the song builds and builds until an instrumental release comes in due time, ripping out a sweeping chorus; in other words, its solid songwriting.
“On The Night My Love Broke Through” is a soul burner that doesn’t get involving or interesting until three minutes in. Though its last minute is fairly heavy (in a jazzy sort of way), the slow chugging crawl beforehand is a bit much, especially in the context of the album. Again, things swell up some with “Relief”, featuring some more of that fuzzy bass and another catchy chorus (“You never really know what you can’t really see/I’ll be there”), which is only empowered by Willett’s vocals. In the end, what everything boils down to is “Cryptomnesia,” one of the album’s finest tracks. Despite some light instrumentation littered throughout, it’s really Willett at the piano. Such vacancy pierces the heart, undermined by some powerhouse lyrics, with which Willett pulls you in. To be honest, this closing track shares many parallels to Radiohead’s similarly vacuous and solemn “Videotape” off of last year’s In Rainbows (coincidentally, they both close each respective album). The big difference between the two is that Willett reels the band back in for a sprawling instrumental finish.
For coming off of a debut that swings, it’s hard to listen to something that chugs along. However, there’s enough of the old here to embrace the new and because of that, this sophomore effort is sure to please rather than disappoint. Most importantly though, Loyalty to Loyalty presents new characters that are just as telling and arduous to encompass as the last time around. And while there’s a deep emotive, downward spiral that lasts from beginning ’til end, there’s a hidden sense of optimism that suggests these California rockers have more to tell in the coming years. And like anything that’s hidden, you’ll just have to dig, but rest assured, it’s worth all the work.
“Something Is Not Right With Me”