New Listens: Cold War Kids; David Lowery; The Civil Wars

Three quick reviews this week: Mine Is Yours from Cold War Kids, The Palace Guards by David Lowery, and Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars. Quick verdicts:
  • Cold War Kids – nice but not a “must listen”
  • David Lowery – great solo “debut” (after a quarter century career in bands), well worth picking up
  • The Civil Wars – a true debut by a folk duo, great for those who enjoy minimalist Appalachia-flavored acoustic music

Mine Is Yours, Cold War Kids

Although this is their third album, this is my introduction to Cold War Kids, one of the artists on my ever-expanding list of “bands to check out.” My quick verdict: there’s very little distinctive about this band, at least as far as this album goes. It’s nice music with some occasional catchy hooks, and a decent and sometimes soulful vocalist, but I could be listening to Kings of Leon or just about of those other bands that straddle the line between “indie rock” and the mainstream.

The title song sets the stage, with a chugging, low-end, early-U2ish bass, simple guitar figure and piano. Nice although there’s a somewhat amateurish sounding guitar bit toward the end. “Louder Than Ever” has a nice chorus that breaks out from the verses, which are a bit of a sludgy mess. The Kings of Leon vibe really comes through on “Skip the Charades.”
If you like Kings of Leon, you’ll probably like this album. I’m curious if their earlier albums are more unique and less derivative-sounding than this.

The Palace Guards, David Lowery

Hard though it is to believe, this is the first solo album from Lowery, the twisted genius behind Camper van Beethoven and Cracker. The Palace Guards is quieter than much of his work with those bands, but he maintains his talent for off-kilter, humorous lyrics, and quirky tunes. Case in point: one song is titled “I Sold the Arabs the Moon.”
Country has always been a big part of the stew in Lowery’s work, and that influence is even more present here. Pedal steel runs through many songs, which often ride on a slowly strummed acoustic guitar. A harmonica honks over pedal steel and a stomped bass drum on opener “Raise ‘Em Up on Honey.” It borders on parody, particularly given the jokey lyrics (which start sweetly with talk about moving into the mountains to raise their children, but quickly veers into survivalist mentality), but it works and starts the album off with a bang.
“Baby, All Those Girls Meant Nothing to Me” is the loudest song on the album, crunching along like “I Hate My Generation” from The Golden Age. “Marigold” is a beautiful simple country strummer with pedal steel. “Please Don’t Give It Away” brings the album to a plaintive close, opening with a gently whispered vocal supported by chiming harmonics, building in quiet verses to a gospel/Southern rock chorus that puts Lowery’s voice over the top of his range.
A couple of the quieter songs (e.g. “Ah You Left Me” and “Submarine”) tend to blend together (they may grow on me with repeated listens), but this is altogether a worthy “debut,” albeit rather late in this artist’s career!

Barton Hollow, The Civil Wars

This is the full-length debut from this folk duo, composed of John Paul White and Joy Williams. It’s an album of simple, straightforward folk with minimalist arrangements of acoustic guitar, mandolin, violin and pedal steel, all accompanying their beautiful harmonies.
“20 Years” is a beautiful start to this collection with harmonized voices broken seamlessly by a simple acoustic guitar figure. The title song has a nice Appalachian stomp feel. I really love “Poisin and Wine,” a quietly effective and touching duet with conflicted lyrics that are a bit cliched but work due to the passion in the voices.
“Forget Me Not” captures one of the weaknesses (which can also be a strength) of this music: it sounded so much like something I’d heard before that I spent several minutes searching on the Internet to determine that it’s their song and not a cover.
This isn’t groundbreaking music, but it’s well crafted, played with great feeling, and a great album to listen to on a snowy, quiet night.

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