Music That Makes a Difference 2018

Music That Makes a Difference 2018

CNN Music & Art

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Jack Johnson

CNN Music & Art

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Eddie Van Halen

CNN Music & Art


Cold War Kids

The setting sun ducks behind Big Sur’s giant redwoods chugging towards the waters off California’s Central Coast. The smell of untouched earth slow dances in the crisp canyon air. Without taint or judgment, the sounds of spirituality ring peacefully, calling the starved to feast on nature’s offerings. Painters and poets have long found creative fuel on this western edge of the world dating back to Kerouac, Jeffers and Miller. Lately, though, it’s musicians who’ve been basking in Big Sur’s beauty, transforming it into a sanctuary for intimate concerts: Arcade Fire, Neil Young, Jenny Lewis, The xx, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. And on this December day, the Bohemians came out to play to the soulful punk of Cold War Kids!

With bright stars fighting for space on God’s masterpiece, a parade of people began the march up Highway One to Fernwood. It’s a rustic bar turned music factory with room for 150, a tiny stage and just enough floor space to dance with dignity. Cold War Kids enter through a side door, grab their instruments and proceed to pleasantly blow our eardrums off. The bass and percussion of “Royal Blue” rev the collective fan engine red hot. Lead singer Nate Willet approaches the mic with intensity wallpapered to his eyeballs. “Why would I make that face, oh why would I? Why would I test my faith, oh why would I? Oh, I see that rain cloud coming right for me,” he sings. Willet’s wily voice does an inflection ballet with the next verse, then the roar of percussion and guitar kick in, prompting people to raise their right arms and bob their wrists to the beat in unison.

Classics like “Hang Me Up to Dry” and “Something is Not Right With Me” get the crowd jumping, but much of the set is new material from Cold War Kids’ much-anticipated third LP “Mine is Yours.” The songs off this album stand out. They’re catchy with fewer frayed edges – easy to swallow without chewing. It appears as though a glossy resin has been poured over the raw dissonance that makes up the band’s character. The genius of “Mine is Yours” is that the answers to the musical equations are made easy to read, but when you strip away the polish, the band still shows all its work. The thick texture features a complex web of ideas, sage writing and instrumental muscle flexing.

What Cold War Kids achieves on “Mine is Yours” is a Kings of Leon-type leap, where its signature becomes a profound statement. The album is an indie school of rock dissertation about how the whisper of wisdom can speak “LOUDER THAN EVER”… if you chose to listen. Throughout the process, Willett’s ever-maturing vocals move mountains by crumbling them, and Matt Maust’s bass lines move like the abstract under-paintings of a brilliant landscape. The screams from Jonnie Russell’s guitar echo beyond the boundary of breathtaking, and Matt Aveiro’s drumbeats have the gusto of a storm chaser in the middle of a category four. “Mine is Yours,” is Cold War Kids version of “London Calling,” where similar to The Clash, every member has a perfect and parallel role.

“Your description is the greatest compliment, and it’s what we hope we achieve with this record in particular,” Willet tells me as he sips a local microbrew on Fernwood’s back deck before the gig. “It’s truly the most ambitious thing that a band could do… for a bass player and a drummer to have a real voice is exceptional, especially in the contemporary popular music sense, not just a band that has a certain niche.”

For Willet, this album is personal. The lyrics delve into the pit of a sensitive kid’s heart as he struggles with the divorce of his parents. They analyze religious resentment, and what it’s like to shed that weighty skin. Ultimately, it’s Willet’s own life that’s under the microscope, and the culture he’s studying is the making and breaking of commitments. “Mine is Yours” took 18 months for the band to absorb and craft. Taking that kind of time to make a record was a foreign concept for Cold War Kids, who’ve pumped out two LPs, four EPs, and two live discs in the five years previous. The band’s junior album jostled this writer’s “beautiful mind.” Willet is a perfectionist and a musical tinkerer obsessed with telling a story exactly the way it wants to be told. “I’ll listen to certain lyrics or parts on our first two albums and think, ‘Oh man, if we would have only done this.’ This time around I wanted to experience the danger of having too much time, and to be able to over-think things.”

Willet is a former high school English teacher, yet he speaks like a Da Vinci sketchbook reads. Starts. Stops. Tangents. His explanations are a bunch of raw parts that loosely combine to create a verbal invention… it’s as though he’s so focused on thinking that answers just become disruptions. His truth is his music, and it fends fine for itself. “Broken Open” is the track that embraces exposure. It’s freedom’s rhapsody, a Breathe-Right Strip for an introverted soul. “It feels so strange to feel good/And when I was the fire you were wood/So when I was petrified, you understood. I have been broken open/This was not my master plan/I was comfortable watching from the stands/I have been broken open/All my edges are exposed/I was once content alone/Now you are the one that I call home/I’ve been broken open.”

For the first time, the band brought in an outsider to help shape their sound. Producer Jacquire King opened up mainstream audience ears to Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon, and he’ll do the same for Cold War Kids on “Mine is Yours.” But not all the album’s edges are smoothed out. In fact, King dusted off an old trick from his days of working with Tom Waits to help them discover the art of improvisation. During the recording of “Mule Variations,” Waits waited to hand sheet music to his session players until the day of, then immediately hit record and they felt the songs come alive together. King wanted that same sort of discovery on Cold War Kids’ “Cold Toes on a Cold Floor.” “We were playing that song a bunch of times,” Matt Maust reflects, “and Jaquire said, ‘It’s 98% working. Just unlearn a bunch of stuff, and everyone do something completely different on the next take. So that’s what we did, and there’s a lot of mistakes on that take, but we left it on the record as is, and I think it’s one of the most magical moments on the whole record.”

To fully comprehend the multi-faceted talents of Cold War Kids, all one needs to do is ask Maust to empty his pockets. They are constantly overflowing with travel tokens, and tonight, they are stuffed with twenty matchbooks from Nepenthe – a Big Sur restaurant with one of the most spectacular views in all of California. “I’m a walking garage sale,” he quips. “My car is, too.” Maust is a collegiately-trained graphic designer who has done t-shirts, websites and the album covers for his band and others. He’s also a talented artist who blends conceptual photography with urban abstraction and plain English, kind of like a weird marriage between his heroes Rodney Graham, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ed Ruscha. Matt Maust is an around-the-world scribbler; postcards, photos, trinkets anything that catches his eye becomes fodder for his hunger to doodle. Most often, a Xerox machine is involved, where 3-D is whittled down to two-dimensional through dozens and dozens of scans. Then, after an image is unrecognizable, Maust adds stains, smears, color and, ultimately, personality. “Sometimes I scan it in and then I’ll get rid of the piece. I’ll throw it away. It’s not the physical things, it’s what it’s saying. The same thing with our music. The CD isn’t what matters – it’s what’s encoded in the music – what we’re saying that matters. In the end, it’s a nice paycheck if someone buys our record, but that’s not going to make someone hear our song.”

Maust is a red-bearded nomadic looking guy with an inquisitive, worldly personality. The concept of Cold War Kids came from a trip he took in Eastern Europe a decade ago. “We were in Hungary at a park where they took all the statues from the fall of the Soviet Union and dumped them in a big field,” he says. “You pay a dollar or two and have a picnic on Lennin’s foot. I remember writing down a couple things, including the words “cold war kids” – not knowing about the Billy Joel song (‘Leningrad’) where he mentions cold war kids. Now everyone thinks our name is a reference to Billy Joel – but it’s not.”

Maust bought the domain and used it as his design and art website, but then when the band first formed in 2004, the moniker just stuck. “It’s as funny as it is serious,” Maust says. “It reminds me of Charlie Brown. When you watch ‘The Peanuts,’ they’re the most serious little kids in the world. I think our name is really, really serious for a fun live band.” The sound Cold War Kids was cranking out oozed attitude and impatience. Soul sweat paid for their tours, traveling and minimal marketing. Bloggers took notice of these hard-charging indie bangers, and pounded on their keyboards just as hard.

Cold War Kids has built a loyal following, one set of ears at a time, thanks to our modern music climate. Now Downtown Records is in their corner, and they’ve gone from chatter on music message boards to cracking Rolling Stone’s 2010 list of “Best Songs of the Year” for “Coffee Spoon,” a track that punches greed in the mouth with poetic grit… “My indulgence is a joke/And while everybody laughs/I’m clipping coupons/And saving my breath.” As they pull out of Big Sur after an intimate and insane evening, they begin preparing for stages exponentially bigger: Coachella, Bonnaroo and Sasquatch later this year. With all the newfound hype, some wonder if Cold War Kids has gone corporate by selling out its sound. Willet ponders this statement for a while, and between swigs of beer, he concludes, “Our band has always had a thing where people have strong opinions about us. I feel like the people who have been with us will be really proud of us, because I feel like however crazy this may sound, ‘Mine is Yours’ was the album we were supposed to make.”
Written by: Ben Bamsey

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