Review: Cold War Kids at HiFi Music Hall
Cold War Kids’ bass guitarist Matt Maust conceived the name for the cracked-out L.A. indie-rock group when he took a trip to Budapest, Hungary and saw fallen statues of Communist figures beside playgrounds in a city park.
Nine years since its debut, Robbers and Cowards, the band brought the same degree of grit and emotional weight to a sold-out show at the HiFi Music Hall (44 E 7th Ave) on Wednesday, Dec. 2.
While Cold War Kids is arguably the biggest name that the venue has booked since it opened in May, the Hi-Fi brand was sort of suspect, as the band’s frontman Nathan Willett was virtually incomprehensible, as he sang over the everything else – including drummer Joe Plummer, formerly of Modest Mouse, who now also plays with The Shins.
HiFi faded the pre-show playlist (Nirvana’s Nevermind in its entirety) as openers The Weather Machine took the stage. The Portland-based five-piece have a smattering of pop songs, many of which offered some tasteful drum and cello solos. This set’s finale was followed by HiFi continuing to cater to the audience with The White Stripes’ Elephant played in full.
Cold War Kids came on by the time “The Hardest Button to Button” played and Jack White was about to sing about stabbing an infant baby voodoo doll. The Kids had a beautiful, propulsive opener. In an abnormal move, the group played its most popular hit – “Hang Me Up to Dry” – as the second track.
Now, this is a song that the band has ostensibly played interminably since its Robbers days, but it still felt as brand-new and as inexhaustible as ever. Willett would sit down and stumble his fingers down the keyboard, before standing up and draping himself over the mic stand.
Each member in the band was largely silhouetted for the stretch of the show; Willett and his anvil chin were only visible when the front-and-center crowd lit the scene with their phones while recording video. Otherwise, the band was shrouded in darkness for the whole show.
“One Song at a Time” was followed by “First,” which led into “We Used to Vacation,” a wonderful slapping of Willett at piano and Plummer on drums. Willett cries in allusion to Bob Dylan’s fever dream “Ballad of a Thin Man” and shoehorns in awkward, multi-syllabic lyrical stylings: “I’m just an honest man / Provide for me and mine / I give a check to tax-deductible charity organizations.”
“Vacation” was followed by “Miracle Mile” and “Hospital Beds.” All night, the transitions between tracks were quick and seamless. It’s almost like they’re professionals.
In 2008, Cold War Kids released Loyalty to Loyalty with a banger of a single, “Something Is Not Right With Me.” The single is notably uncharacteristic for the band, not just as easily the group’s most danceable track, but for its antiseptically clean production and bouncing synth-bass hook – not exactly something the average fan would expect from them. This was a phenomenal performance of this track, not just for its deconstructed, bricklayer progression, but for the absurd fact that there were four tambourines on stage for this one.
Keyboardist Jonnie Russell slapped maracas to his tambourine, while Willett ground the tambourine cymbals against his guitar strings. Both confused and desperate, Willett wails about his antiquated antics in the best stanza of Cold War Kids’ career: “I tried to call you collect / You said you would not accept / Your friends are laughing / ‘Cause nobody uses pay phones.”
Although it would’ve been a strong closer on its own, the band returned for a brief encore of “Saint John.” With its simple, hollow rhythm structure, the lyrics tell a bleak story of a man on death row who waits for his pardon.
“Saint John” plays like a traditional prison shanty, as if it’s been sung by imprisoned folks for generations. And for a band named for a tense stalemate and the youths who grew up in that period of international distrust and unrest, it’s pitch perfect.
Listen to “We Used To Vacation” from Robbers and Cowards below.