The Inevitable Comparison: Loyalty to Loyalty vs. Robbers & Cowards

It’s nearly impossible and usually unreasonable to discuss one album by an artist in a vacuum. You should compare it to their previous output (unless it’s a debut album, obviously), bearing in mind that, just because it’s different, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. There can be good differences and bad, just as their are good similarities and bad ones. London Calling, for instance, is drastically different from The Clash, yet both are essential recordings.

I have not read a review yet of Loyalty to Loyalty, the new album from L.A.’s own (sort of)  Cold War Kids, that doesn’t conclude that Loyalty to Loyalty is an almost exact copy of Robbers and Cowards. So I did the inevitable comparison myself, listening first to Robbers & Cowards and then to Loyalty to Loyalty.

I kinda wish Loyalty to Loyalty were more like Robbers & Cowards.

For starters, you probably either loved or hated Robbers & Cowards and you probably either loved or hated it based largely on Nathan Willet’s histrionic singing. The problem is, on Robbers & Cowards, Willet’s vocals were surrounded by crisp, punchy pop music and he danced carefully and gracefully on the line between interesting and annoying. On Loyalty to Loyalty, The Cold War Kids have turned up Willet’s histrionics and turned down the other musicians. Result: on Loyalty to Loyalty, Willet is all over the wrong side of that line between interesting and annoying.

This is tolerable for a while, and album opener “Against Privacy” is actually all right – the guitar meanders about in the background while the drums and bass try not to intrude too much. Willet keeps his tenor sax voice (mostly) under control, and you get this sort of junkyard, Tom Waitsy feel from the album. You start to think this could be good, and a real departure from the polish of Robbers & Cowards.

But then Willet blows it and blows it hard on “Mexican Dogs” and many of the tracks that follow. You hear where the melody should resolve when Willet sings “Like Mexican Dogs/ no body gave us names” but he deliberately fucks up the resolution and I can’t figure out what he’s got to gain by doing so. Also, I think the lyric fails (spectacularly) under scrutiny: does Willet really think no dogs in Mexico have names? I mean, I’m sure there are stray dogs in Mexico just like there are here. But the lyric would work better if Willet sang “Like some Mexican Dogs/ and dogs in probably lots of other countries too/ nobody gave us names.” But that probably wouldn’t keep Willet from ritualistically slaughtering the melody. I know the guy is trying to sell the drama and I know he idolzies Thom Yorke (not a bad thing), but for fuck’s sake, man. Songs have notes in them. Try singing some. (This is especially annoying because Willet consistently proves that he can sing.)

“Every Valley is Not  A Lake” is a welcome respite from Loyalty to Loyalty’s worst excesses, starting off with a stomping little piano lick. But it only temporarily pulls the album out of its stubborn, Willet-driven nose dive.

“Something is Not Right with Me” starts off all right, lifting its bass-line from LCD Soundsystem’s “Tribulations”, but Willet, after singing the first chorus pretty well, turns into Freddy Mercury at his worst in the verse. And it gets worse before it gets better.

“Welcome to the Occupation” is the worst offender on the album, and maybe I’d like the whole thing better if this song wasn’t on the album, but it is. By the end of the song, Willet is shrieking “The Devil’s in the details” in such way that you’d think he was a fugitive on the run from the notes he’s supposed to be singing. Again, idolizing Thom Yorke is not a bad thing, but even at his most dramatic, Yorke is in control of what he’s singing. Willet seems to delight in not being in control, and that’s cool as a musical ethos, but – again, not to belabor the point here – tunefulness is nice too. The Clash were pretty out of control and yet, lo and behold, they had melodies. Strummer sang notes. You can look this up. It’s verifiable information.

So Loyalty to Loyalty spends three of its first five tracks digging a big fucking hole to crawl out of. The Cold War Kids mostly climb out with “Golden Gate Jumpers,” “Avalanche in B,” and “Dreams Old Men Dream.” So while you may think by what I’ve written here that I can’t stand this album (or, indeed this band), the truth is, I look at Loyalty to Loyalty like someone watching their favorite candidate in a debate: I like who they are and what they’re saying, but once in a while, they go on a run of gaffes that causes much cringing and shaking of the head (fans of Joe Biden will probably understand this analogy perfectly). Nobody’s perfect.

In terms of ideology and music, the Cold War Kids are doing something worth doing, something that might even be called important. They’re an obviously socially-minded band and they’re capable of chronicling the ills of society in a catchy, entertaining manner – and that’s what makes Loyalty to Loyalty‘s worst moments so disappointing. It’s worth a listen, but you’ll learn to skip through the chaff to get to the wheat, which you really didn’t have to do on Robbers & Cowards.

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