It’s been 11 years since Cold War Kids’ debut album, Robbers & Cowards, a record that still shines brightly as one of the finest major label “indie rock” releases of the aughts. The Los Angeles band packed that disc full of eerie, off-kilter piano stompers with a vocalist that sounded like Isaac Brock on uppers and lyrics that crept under your skin. Tracks like “Hang Me Out To Dry” and “Hospital Beds” still hold up, more than a decade later. But like most bands with fiery, critically acclaimed debuts, it’s a slow, steady descent after that.
That’s not to say Cold War Kids’ catalog hasn’t had more gems scattered throughout: “Audience” and “Something Is Not Right With Me,” for example, are just two examples of stellar songwriting. But at some point, the band lost the plot. Maybe it’s the surprisingly large catalog they’ve amassed in just a decade (their new album, L.A. Divine, is their sixth, in addition to a handful of EPs). Maybe it’s that half the band’s original lineup has since quit. The band is now a quintet, with Modest Mouse’s Joe Plummer on drums and guitarist David Quon making his recorded debut here as well, replacing Dann Gallucci (himself, a Modest Mouse alum). But what really changed was “First,” the revamped band’s surprise hit single in 2014 that hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative chart and was certified Gold. The song itself was a basic stomp-clamp track that fell somewhere in between the Lumineers and Imagine Dragons and rang a bit hollow with longtime fans. But it garnered the band a rare second act.
The group’s first album on their new Capitol Records contract, L.A. Divine, is frustrating in its monotonous insistence on making everything sound the same, simultaneously trying to land every single song on SiriusXM’s Alt Nation channel but not focusing enough on developing the personality of any one track. “Love Is Mystical” sounds curiously like Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” only with piano instead of synth; “Restless” is as blatant an aping of Imagine Dragons as possible (and furthermore, a cheap revamping of “First”); “Part Of The Night” falls flat thanks to chintzy synth sounds instead of the string section the original arrangement clearly had in mind.
Stranger still is the decision to include three short interludes throughout the record, “L.A. River,” “Wilshire Protest” and “Camera’s Always On,” which do nothing to deepen the album’s attempts at artistry. “Wilshire Protest” is especially cringeworthy, coming off as some sort of attempt at beat poetry with such painfully dorky lines as “We are separated by steel and glass/In traffic trapped on the freeway, everybody is a DJ/Looking down at our phones for the fastest way to get home/Don’t text me that you’ll be late/I can wait.” This isn’t the worst line on the record, though. That dubious distinction goes to “Open Up The Heavens,” when frontman Nathan Willett sings, “I Yelped a five star mole/Got me a passport and a driver/My job is laying low/A camouflage flamingo/In disguise at the border.”
Not all is lost: “Can We Hang On?” and “Ordinary Idols” feel like something the band would have come up a decade prior without sounding too nostalgic, and “Luck Down” is a gritty, bluesy number that is simplistic in the best way possible. But for a 14-track album that feels interminably long at only 44 minutes, three songs is not enough to save L.A. Divine from sustained mediocrity.