Live Review: Cold War Kids at the Wiltern
On the new song “Santa Ana Winds,” Nathan Willett of the Long Beach band Cold War Kids invokes another artist fond of bare, venomous depictions of Southern California. “In between is a basin like the great divide, where the 110 swallows the 105,” he sings. “Chutes and ladders leaving me where I begun, like Joan Didion.”
Willett’s fond of literary allusions in his band’s songs, which are rooted in hot-blooded soul and delivered with the inventiveness of post-punk. But Didion’s a particularly apt one -- both artists file their efforts down to a spooky, unsparing center. The difference is that when Cold War Kids play them live, as they did with typical precision and swing at the Wiltern on Friday night, they have to figure out how to hold very big rooms with a sound that gets much of its power from what’s not there.
By and large, the band nailed that trick at the Wiltern. If they’ve necessarily lost a bit of the sweaty, incendiary touch that vaulted them from the Silver Lake residency scene into KROQ-staple status, they’ve largely made up for it with the wide scope and flow of their sets. Now with two full-lengths and a new EP “Behave Yourself” to cull from, the band proves the shared DNA of heartsick blues, acrobatic Motown rhythms and the sonic possibilities of the underground tape-trade (or file-swapping) circuit.
Even if the EP is a bit of a placeholder in their catalog, one new tune was unexpectedly striking. The falsetto-soaked “Audience” has the band’s most straightforward, easygoing melody yet, and it flits about like something Beyonce would sing while folding laundry on a summer Sunday (well, if she doesn’t have a staff to do that). It might be the band’s best single yet, and even if they couldn’t resist riffing on Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” in the song’s video, live it was an unexpected R&B pleasure.
But the band’s California-gothic worldview is still up front. “Dreams Old Men Dream,” from their 2008 album “Loyalty To Loyalty,” swelled with clatter and ambience behind Willett’s peals of bleak imagery of gutters, obituary pages and a “hack actor finished playing my role." The long-simmering “Saint John,” an interracial murder ballad of sorts, felt alternately righteous and bitter.
Whereas Willett’s hugely impressive voice is the band’s calling card – there’s really no comparison for a white, soul-inspired male singer on rock radio today – the secret is in the rhythmic interplay between the other three members, bassist Matt Maust, drummer Matthew Aveiro and guitarist Jonathan Russell. Following the old James Brown adage that every instrument should be played like a drum set, the Kids’ riffs interlocked in both subtle and startling ways – on the waltz-time “Sermons,” the guitars only stepped in as percussive accents, making their reverb effects the song’s dominant sound.
Of course, Cold War Kids still have an ear for a concise, beery rave-up, and singles like “Something Is Not Right With Me" and “Hang Me Up To Dry” successfully hoisted a few girlfriends on shoulders. It takes a certain guilelessness to lead a crowd in a 10-minute rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See The Light,” and for all of Cold War Kids’ aspirations toward an acid tongue, their brief moments of earnestness are often their most charming.
Even the set’s closer, the brutal alcoholic’s lament “We Used To Vacation,” seemed redemptive rather than wholly doom-laden. Joan Didion never saw much hope in this town, but if Willett shares her views, he’s got a way of making an audience believe otherwise.
Photo: Cold War Kids; Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times