Everything you need to know about the Cold War Kids’ new record, Hold My Home, can be gleaned from the music video for lead single “All This Could Be Yours”. Well, we’re calling it a music video, though it looks and feels more like a Calvin Klein commercial. In it, model Polina Barbasova roams the streets of London at night, running her fingers through her hair as if all the world were her runway. Along the way, she extensively models a pair of designer boots and spray-paints some CWK graffiti on a tunnel wall. The video is almost laughably vapid, a series of black-and-white images engineered to sell the ideas of sleekness and sexiness to those who don’t know any better.
It makes a perfect companion to the song itself. “All This Could Be Yours” contains every element that once made Cold War Kids an interesting (or at least semi-interesting) band: the rousing piano chords, the dance-ready drumbeat, and, most of all, the soulful cries of singer Nathan Willett. What it lacks is an actual soul, opting instead for slick production and a big, arena-ready sound that flirts with U2 levels of hubris.
It has indeed been a long, cold winter for fans of Robbers & Cowards, the Kids’ 2006 debut and the last time they sounded consistently passionate. Though not exactly a classic, that record stood out in a crowded field of rock thanks to the immediacy of anthems like “We Used to Vacation” and the slower-burning pleasures of songs like “Hospital Beds”. Of course, Willett’s astounding vocal range has always been an intrinsic part of the band’s appeal, but that’s about the only reason to listen to Loyalty to Loyalty (2008) and Mine Is Yours (2011), two albums that feel about as pointless and drawn out as the actual Cold War. If last year’s Dear Miss Lonelyhearts captured a few hints of that old magic, it probably had something to do with the addition of spark plug and former Murder City Devils guitarist Dann Gallucci.
Unfortunately, Hold My Home is not another baby step in the right direction, but rather a collection of slack-jawed tunes surrounding one or two borderline gems. “First” follows up “All This Could Be Yours” with more cool, utterly forgettable indie rock backed by the requisite hand claps. “Hot Coals” starts out with some promisingly jangly guitar chords, but ends up relying far too much on the dynamics of Willet’s voice to carry it to the finish line. At several points, the song sounds ready to launch into a wacky time signature or a soaring chorus or something approximating life, but instead it’s content to ride on the same gear for its full three-and-a-half minutes.
Befitting its name, “Drive Desperate” finally finds that extra gear. The song builds tension with a lengthy verse that culminates in a rollicking chorus and, eventually, a guitar solo that’s about as balls-out as Cold War Kids can manage these days. It’s easily one of the most dynamic songs on the album, and a welcome respite from the dreariness that precedes it.
Hold My Home is not without its other merits, few and far between as they may be. “Go Quietly” is nearly a stunner, giving Willett’s voice room to breathe on a muted verse before he stretches to the very top of his range at the chorus. It’s a powerful moment that finds the band sounding comfortable in their own skin for once, even as Willett sings in an eye-opening falsetto. Credit is also due to Cold War Kids for being (I assume) the first-ever indie rock band to name-drop literary critic Harold Bloom in a song title. It’s an unexpected bonus that “Harold Bloom” turns out to be one of the album’s few highlights, a piano-centric slow-burner that rights the ship just moments before it sails off for good.
But pleasantly esoteric references and last-second Hail Marys can’t save Hold My Home from the disease of having nothing, really, to say. Nor can a meticulously stylish image or painstakingly minimalist album art. With each successive release, it becomes more likely that Robbers & Cowards was a flash in the pan and not the start of something bigger than itself. Cold War Kids may yet have another trick up their sleeve, but their fans can’t be blamed for not waiting around any longer for the magic to happen.
Essential Tracks: “Drive Desperate”, “Go Quietly”, and “Harold Bloom”