There’s a clear turning point in the studio efforts of Cold War Kids. At first, its members focused on writing outside of the studio as a band. Since 2010, however, they’ve given more power to producers to influence the band’s writing and direction. For a band so creative and so successful in conveying its ideas, this change in tactics might be a bad choice. The consequences are apparent in their new release, Dear Miss Lonelyhearts.

Dear Miss Lonelyhearts

Cold War Kids
Downtown Records

The first two albums released by Cold War Kids feature a powerful, chaotic, pianos-falling-from-the-sky compositional style, heavy in rhythm and tension. Soaring above the noise are lead singer Nathan Willett’s piercing, soulful vocals, and the contrast between an angry, crashing rhythm section and a heart-aching, bluesy melody makes a compelling mixture that’s hard not to listen to again and again.

Cold War Kids’ last album, Mine Is Yours, comes from a partnership with producer Jacquire King and marks the band’s first attempt to mold its ideas to the influence and direction of a producer. The changes that surfaced in Mine Is Yours continue to develop in Lonelyhearts, which shows a softening in the group’s rhythm section. Fresh dissonance gives way to simpler, more conventional and more digestible compositions. The band takes fewer liberties with tempo and harmony and essentially leaves it to the vocals to capture interest. The instruments form more of a background accompaniment than a driving force.

Synths make a noticeable appearance in Lonelyhearts, adding a dimension to a band that once made exclusive use of piano, bass, guitar and drums. On “Lost That Easy,” smooth synths mesh well with the vocals and provide a subtle harmony for the chorus, but on “Bottled Affection,” an airy lead synth clashes with the melody and annoys the ear. On “Loner Phase,” synths build a cheesy 1980s groove that the band can’t really pull off.

Studio effects also overwhelm Lonelyhearts throughout. Every track makes heavy use of reverb, and some to the point that the band sounds distant and muddy. Sometimes, like at the end of “Fear and Trembling,” the track uses reverb as a transition or fade effect, but the overall prominence of reverb in the record makes this moment unsurprising and less effective. “Tuxedos” features a slap echo so strong that it distracts from the purpose of the vocals and draws all attention to the effect.

This overuse of effects on the album could be an attempt to fill a void created by a loss of soul in Nathan Willett’s voice — or, it could have caused the void. Whether by smothering, artistic choice or lack of personal investment, the lead singer has lost some of his biting emotion. He just can’t establish the same personal connection with the listener that was once so compelling.

This excess of criticism for the album comes more from disappointment than dislike. Dear Miss Lonelyhearts still showcases soulful earworms in “Miracle Mile,” “Lost That Easy” and “Jailbirds,” and when compared to other material being released today, these songs deserve success on the charts. The main problem is that a fan with expectations just won’t be satisfied with the momentum and strength of the record as a whole.

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