It feels like Cold War Kids have lived several lives in their relatively short career -- from overnight blog sensations, a national tour with Death Cab for Cutie, to nefariously being identified as a "Christian band," an association that can be the death knell for any modern musician not named Sufjan.
Of course, all of this is far more interesting than the path Cold War Kids have chosen for themselves on their latest release Mine Is Yours, a squeaky-clean pop record aimed at mass-market radio. The Los Angeles four-piece squeezed their arena-sized aspirations into the cozier confines of Portland, Oregon's Crystal Ballroom Thursday night, launching their U.S. tour.
Putting the new material to the test, Cold War Kids opened with "Royal Blue," a song whose rhythmic intro hinted at Afro pop until the band switched tempo and vocalist Nathan Willett unleashed some impressive falsetto. They followed with another newbie from Mine Is Yours "Finally Begin," a song ready-made for big audiences with its sing-along chorus and Johnnie Russell's neo-Edge guitar work, which would shimmer and echo throughout the performance.
You can say one thing: Cold War Kids have managed to maintain their audience -- a feat that borders on impossible in today's fickle digital age. The all-ages crowd ate up the new songs as if they were well-worn hits.
That well-worn hit came about six songs in. "This is for old-time's sake," Willett announced as the familiar loping guitar intro of "Hang Me Up to Dry" whipped the audience into a frenzy. The song (along with the album Robbers and Cowards) is easily one of Cold War Kids' best, and should never be cut from a setlist simply because it will forever be the band's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Even without pristine production to give them away, Cold War Kids' new songs were relatively easy to spot. "Louder Than Ever" and "Cold Toes On the Cold Floor" sound bigger and far less abrasive than say, the aforementioned hit or "Something Is Not Right With Me" from 2008's Loyalty to Loyalty (which the band, surprisingly, did not play).
But they're far less throwaway than critics might have you believe. In the live setting songs like "Bulldozer" ("This is my personal favorite," Willett would note) were allowed to sweat and breathe a little without being stifled by studio gloss. "Bulldozer" brought to mind U2 at their most anthemic -- slightly over-the-top melodrama.
Cold War Kids closed out the night with "Flying Upside Down" (another number pulled from Mine Is Yours) as audience members -- a few with "Cold War Kids" scrawled on their arms -- mouthed the lyrics. The band returned for a quick three-song encore, highlighted by "We Used to Vacation," which includes a fitting refrain: "Still, things could be much worse." Whether this band's new direction suits fans or not, it's certainly far more interesting than anything else that might hit the airwaves on your local rock radio station.