The Backlash Variations


Along with multiple articles about visual artists who use their own sperm as a medium, New York magazine’s other truly splendid recent addition to artistic discourse is the Undulating Curve, a graphical axis with an endlessly repeating sideways S of popularity that swoops and dives as a band or a movie or an abstract cultural phenomenon walks hype’s Stations of the Cross: rising with “Pre-Buzz,” “Buzz,” “Rave Reviews”; sinking from the “Saturation Point” to “Overhyped” to “Backlash”; and ascending again via “Backlash to the Backlash.” Brilliant, and very apt. We rock critic—blogger types—a cabal that knows plenty about using our own sperm as a medium—now regard the Cold War Kids as they enter their backlash-backlash phase. Welcome, gentlemen. We’ve hated you for so long it’s time to like you again.

They are from Los Angeles, which is too bad. And on cue, the quartet arrived Wednesday night at Pianos on the Lower East Side, opening with “Saint John,” easily their most annoying song, which now sounds eerie and exuberant. The Undulating Curve undulates thus.

If an entire new crop of micro-indie bands insists on all emulating the same guy, it might as well be Tom Waits, I guess. So suddenly we’re inundated by warped, jittery blues dirges framed by relentlessly macabre lyrics (murder, insanity, disfigurement, binge drinking), wacky vocals, and all manner of clattering extra percussion. As “Saint John” unfurls, then, the dude at Pianos’ piano is holding a beer bottle and a drumstick in his right hand (so as to bash the bare cymbal laid flat on a nearby amp), and a maraca and a tambourine in his left. All four Cold War Kids are bouncing around the stage, hollering spontaneously during quiet instrumental moments, crashing politely into each other . . . I’m a sucker for this shit, the Band Having Fun, however contrived—at least the illusion of movement and enthusiasm. So I overlook the lyrics to “Saint John,” an overcooked Waitsian tale of mice and men and accidental murder. “Old Saint John on death row/He’s just waitin’ for a pardon,” goes the boozy half-time chorus, with “pardon” emerging as “ paaaawwwwwwdin.”

I mean, get the fuck out of here. But it’s honestly mesmerizing now, a comeback performance from a band that’s barely begun—the Undulating Curve swerves so quickly now that underdogs immediately become overhyped “blog band” pariahs, straw men we have to despise because we sense too many other people already declared their love for them. So now they have to redeem themselves. Are career-arc phenomena like the Sophomore Slump and the Difficult Third One now a track-by-track phenomenon?

The Kids were celebrating the first date of a bizarre and unwieldy bicoastal January residency—they’re playing three consecutive Wednesdays here and the three adjoining consecutive Saturdays in L.A. At least five cross-country flights in 21 days. This didn’t even seem like a good idea at the time. But maybe this goofy, contrived showcase-workshop setup will benefit such an intriguing but overthought and underdeveloped band—a little reactionary hype-waffling is inevitable when a band is much better at ideas and atmospherics than actual songs. I love Tom Waits with all my heart, but his grisly carnival-barker shtick is perilously easy to horrifically botch. Just because you recognize that people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge might be a good idea for a song doesn’t mean you can (or should) write it. The few fully formed tracks on the Kids’ debut, Robbers and Cowards, are complete heart-of-darkness snapshots—the funereal piano jam “We Used to Vacation” makes recovering alcoholism sound . . . catchy? The Pianos masses, in any event, sang along on that tune’s chorus and that tune’s chorus only: “I promised to my wife and children/I’d never touch another drink as long as I lived.” But the rest of the record—and, the Kids’ immensely appealing movement ‘n’ enthusiasm aside, the rest of the Pianos set—was a messy jumble. A menacing bass and/or left-hand piano line here, a woozy aux-percussion breakdown there, and frontman Nathan Willett’s wobbly firehose voice throughout, a braying drone you intermittently learn to love when he’s not experimenting with corny faux-rural mispronunciations; I used to own a T-shirt that parodied American Gothic with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck as the husband and wife—that about sums it up.

That recent Tom Waits three-CD set was roughly divided by disc into Brawlers (rockers), Bawlers (ballads), and Bastards (noisy experiments); in those terms—and the Kids seem intent on those terms—they’ve got plenty of Bastards but few Brawlers and maybe half a Bawler (“Hospital Bed”). I stood there at Pianos slightly bothered by this but far more alarmed at the crowd, including me—it was like one of those awful-sounding mythical a&r showcase gigs where a fledgling band looking for a “deal” plays to a crowd of industry blowhards at 3:30 p.m., stuffed suits who stare blankly at the dudes rocking out onstage, coldly evaluating the talent and the potential and the risk and the hype upside. Now that the Internet has allegedly helped democratize the process of what band gets big and why, is everyone acting like this? Trying to decide what comes after Backlash to the Backlash? It’s the evolving reaction, not the quality of the art itself, that makes the Undulating Curve undulate, after all—everyone’s trying to sense changes in the prevailing winds of public opinion and flip-flop accordingly. “Feel free to grab the head of the person on your left!” Willett howled late in the set, and no one did. Maybe the Kids aren’t good enough yet to order anyone around, but then again, perhaps the issue was crowd vertigo. We had no idea which direction “left” was anymore. We were too busy undulating.

The Cold War Kids play Brooklyn’s Union Hall January 17 ( and the Mercury Lounge January 24 (

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