Robbers & Cowards by Cold War Kids

Debut albums are a curious thing, because it's a bit hard to detach it from the greater context of what the band would later go on to do. Sometimes, you can hear a pale version of what would become; other times, it's potential pissed away. Now, I don't know what Cold War Kids did after Robbers & Cowards, but none of it really matters, because this record is pretty great anyway. If you're not familiar with their music, imagine a raconteur with no inside voice against the sound of a blues band in a competition to play as few notes as possible. Naturally, the song least indicative of the band's style, "Hang Me Up to Dry", became their breakout single. Certainly a catchy track, but the group's storytelling, one of its defining traits, isn't on display here. One defining trait that is on display here is the howl of vocalist Nathan Willett. For some, it's a dealbreaker; ask the people who didn't care for the band's cover of "Electioneering".

If you can get past the vocals, however, the rest of the album shows the band in fine form. Tales of thieves and alcoholics in denial are bellowed out between some of the slinkiest riffs and bass grooves to come off an Amerindie album. "Passing the Hat" is one of the best cuts in the entire tracklist, as its protagonist steals from the collection plate and tries in vain to justify it, only to skip the country altogether (using the collection money). The atmosphere on the track is top-notch, with just a touch of anxious piano to round out the tom-heavy beat and agitated guitars. "Saint John" tells of a poor boy on death row for the murder of a well-to-do college boy who almost gang-raped his sister (wowie owie). "Robbers" is another excellent cut, though the breezy chimes, brushed drums, and lazy guitar picking contrast oddly with more tales of robbing from the blind (at least this one seems slightly regretful about it). The album can't quite keep up pace past "Hospital Beds", unfortunately, but at least two-thirds of the tracks here are winners. For a debut album, that's all you can ask for.

Robbers & Cowards

Essential: "We Used to Vacation", "Passing the Hat", "Robbers"
Quintessential: "Saint John"
Non-essential: "God, Make Up Your Mind"

Rating: Great
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