Let’s take a quick history lesson for the artsy Chicago band California Wives. They formed in 2009, self-released an EP in 2010 to a fair amount of buzz, and started touring nationally. One of their biggest career highlights so far came last fall when Peter Hook, formerly of Joy Division/New Order, invited the band to open for him on the Chicago date of his tour demoralizing performing Joy Division’s Closer. Considering California Wives sound a lot like classic New Order, the selection made a lot of sense. After fully solidifying their lineup earlier this year, the band signed to Vagrant Records in the spring and began to prepare their debut full length album. The result is Art History, and like so many bands it features a collection of the best songs they’ve written since their earliest days. That means 4/5ths of the Affair EP is here, plus a bunch of stuff they’ve been performing for awhile now but have never officially recorded before. Producer Claudius Mittendorfer (Interpol, Neon Indian) helped the band reinvent their sound a bit though, and as a result even the stuff you might otherwise have been familiar with is tweaked in such a way that it feels like you’re hearing it for the first time all over again. Songs like “Blood Red Youth” and “Purple” get 30-60 seconds chopped off their runtimes in the interest of being more concise. Some of the more jangly guitar parts and heavy bass lines get whitewashed over or placed further back in the mix to streamline the songs just a bit more too. The New Order comparisons aren’t quite so apt anymore, though they retain that ’80s sheen thanks to the heavy use of synths. Now they’re probably best classified as The Cure filtered through the more modern lens of The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. That works well enough for them, as Art History winds up being a day-glo pop journey that satisfies at every turn with melodies and hooks that will get stuck in your head for days. The highlights are mostly carryovers from the Affair EP, and they’re spread out generously across the album, making minor moments like “Los Angeles” and “Better Home” seem like better songs because they’re sandwiched in between two great ones. A couple brand new songs like “Marianne” and “The Fisher King” do well on their own too, with the former perhaps making the band’s strongest single to date. So yes, there are plenty of things to love about this album. There are also some not-so-great things too. Creatively speaing, Art History doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it even try to. It is by all accounts a very “safe” record, and that lack of exploration can make you feel like you’ve heard some of these songs before and done better. While many of these songs have memorable hooks, you’re sometimes left wondering if they stick with you because they’re genuinely good or simply because they repeat them so many times. How many times, you ask? Well, in the nearly four minutes that are “Tokyo,” the hook hits you 10 times. On “Twenty Three” that grand total is 8. Both are quite a bit higher than average, and that’s just two examples of many on the album. And while they don’t have to abide by traditional song structures to make an impact, the lack of a bridge in pretty much every song is just a little confounding too. What Art History amounts to in the end is a promising debut from a band that needs more time to develop and find their own niche. These songs are superficially pleasing enough to build a strong worldwide audience for California Wives, and if popularity is what they want it’s within their reach. As for critical acclaim, that one’s going to take some work.
Tag: new wave
Remember when the 80s received a much-heralded comeback thanks to The Killers and a host of other synth-heavy pop/rock bands? The first year or two it was a great revival of a genre that many in a younger generation had never had the chance to fully experience before. But just like digging around a box filled with the toys your parents had when they were growing up, you’ll dig around and find some great stuff but after a brief while drop those for something newer and cooler. This is the cycle of music we’re living with these days, where trends come and go with the passing of the wind, and your only real responsibility is to try and keep up. So the 80s revival came and went, and the bands that helped to propogate it either changed their sound or died off like the proverbial dinosaurs they were. Still, the argument stands that good music is always good no matter the genre or time period, meaning that some band could well try and pull off a 50s revival and succeed purely on their own volition. Cold Cave isn’t quite going to do that, but instead they’re crushing hard on the 80s in the best and most respectful way possible. Unlike, say, Chromeo, who exploit every 80s cliche imaginable, Cold Cave are looking to actually rival some fo their synth-pop heroes, from New Order to Tears For Fears and The Cure. Their 2009 debut album “Love Comes Close” had a very lo-fi, minimalist 80s vibe to it, perhaps because that was the best they could do with the materials they had. Flush with some money thanks to lending a couple songs out to TV commercials the last couple years, their new record “Cherish the Light Years” shimmers, sparkles and explodes with all of the sheen that the 80s had to offer.
For those not familiar with Cold Cave, it’s the brainchild of Wes Eisold, former frontman for a couple of hardcore punk bands that includes Some Girls and Give Up the Ghost. Originally starting as a solo project a few years ago, he brought in a few people to help him realize his sonic vision, which was to craft synth-heavy pop with dark industrial undertones, much like many of his musical heroes from the 80s UK music scene. A big boost to the project came when former Xiu Xiu member Caralee McElroy got on board, adding a fascinating female vocal counterpoint to Eisold’s deep but emotionally complex croon. She only stuck around for about a year though, long enough to become a formidable presence in the band with her contributions to “Love Comes Close” and the subsequent tour supporting it. Former Mika Miko frontwoman Jennifer Clavin is her non-technical replacement, in that she handles McElroy’s vocal parts but does not sing on any of “Cherish the Light Years”. Instead, Eisold has fully taken the reins back as frontman, boosted by better production values and increased confidence and strength gained while touring in support of the first album. Looking at their situation from afar, there seemed to be good reason to worry that Cold Cave might not have that same magic once again with the lineup change. The lesson to learn here is to never count Wes Eisold out, because when life gives you oranges instead of lemons, you shut down your lemonade stand and start an orange juice one.
The very instant that “Cherish the Light Years” starts with “The Great Pan Is Dead”, you are completely bombarded with noise. The guitars are already turned up to 11 and raging as if you’re walking in on them mid-stride. It’s an auditory shock to the system not unlike the feeling you get when jumping into an ice cold swimming pool. As hard and harsh as that noise might be initially, once your ears become acclimated to it, the synths come soaring in mixed with a sprinkling of bells that are the sonic equivalent of stars strewn across the night sky. This is Cold Cave the stadium conqueror, a far cry from the meeker, more traditional approach the last record had. Eisold is clearly sold on that pattern of thinking too, as his vocals hit with that same vigor and ferocity needed to compete against all that’s going on around him. It’s an exciting start to an album that doesn’t get much less thrilling as you go, scoring body blow after body blow through sheer bombast and walls of noise. Cold Cave becomes New Order at the height of their popularity. They channel Suede one moment, The Cure the next and The Walker Brothers after that. All at once it preys on your nostalgia while simultaneously wowing you that a contemporary band can pull off that sound with equal parts conviction and perfection. The small tragedy is that for such expansive and addictive synth pop, it’s not going to get the popular support it needs to actually be played in stadiums and other massive venues around the world. Tracks like “Pacing Around the Church”, “Catacombs” and “Icons of Summer” have the gusto and hooks to be radio hits but sadly will never be because they’re not “contemporary”. It functions on a lot of the same principles that M83’s “Saturdays=Youth” exposed with its John Hughes-inspired manifesto, and will likely be treated the same way – respected only by those that can truly appreciate a classic for a classic.
“Cherish the Light Years” is not quite a perfect record, but by that same token it’s nice to know there’s some real humanity in Cold Cave. The pepper spray of horns on “Alchemy Around You” makes it stand out from the rest of the record just a little bit, and while the dash of variety is appreciated, it pulls you out of the singular track everything else is on. You wanted to take a straight shot down the highway, but construction has shut down part of it, so there’s a brief detour that adds 5 minutes to your trip. Despite the track being a small distraction though, it’s no less fascinating than anything else on the album and is yet another cut with “potential single” written all over it. One of the other issues this record has is the sheer force of it all. Nine tracks and 40 minutes really takes it out of you when there’s barely any slowing down. The race to the finish line leaves you exhausted before quite reaching the excellent closer “Villains of the Moon”, something that becomes all the more noticeable if you listen to these songs separately away from the contextual whole of the record. The mixing, too, has some issues because everything is thrust at such a high level competing for your attention. Sometimes it comes across like staring at a wall of TVs set to different channels but at the same volume. There’s only so much you can absorb and while one part of a particular song might appeal to you more than another, everything is whitewashed so any subtleties or nuances fail to exist. Those little bits are often what make the best songs continually rewarding, with the discovery of new elements that have been quietly buried beneath the main melody. So yes, “Cherish the Light Years” is a gothic new wave sledgehammer, forcibly spraying the guts of the 80s all over you whether you like it or not. The great news is there’s a whole lot to like, and even love. If this were 1984, Cold Cave would have just made a name for themselves. In our current musical landscape, they just earned themselves a load of stock as the question looms large as to if anyone else will buy it and drive that price upwards.