Songs From the Lineup is a series that unpacks the musical lineup of the Life Is Beautiful Music & Art Festival through individual songs by the featured artists. Look for regular installments at dtlv.com/songsfromthelineup, right up through the festival in September.
Let me preface this by saying that I don’t consider myself a Cold War Kids fan.
Over the years, I’ve added a handful of the Long Beach quintet’s albums to my voluminous Apple Music library, but I’ve never gotten around to listening to them. Their name has become a placeholder for potential as I frantically scroll to get to Cold Cave or Cocteau Twins. In the same vein, they’ve performed at numerous festivals I’ve attended over the years, but I’ve never made it a point to watch them. I have nothing against the band; most of my experiences with what they’ve created are simply in passing.
Still, Cold War Kids has a rightful place in my music library for one reason: nostalgia. I downloaded the band’s 2007 breakout single “Hang Me Up to Dry” as part of Apple’s “Free Single of the Week” on iTunes the year it was released. It was the corporate giant’s way of showcasing heat seeking acts who, at the time, were ripe for stardom. For an impressionable 15-year-old who had a voracious appetite for new music to load onto his pristine four-gig iPod Nano (a thousand songs in your pocket!), it was heaven. After all, who could say no to free music?
What I heard was a masterclass in rock ‘n’ roll simplicity. At most, “Hang Me Up to Dry” is composed by about six different moving parts: a simple bassline with a melody that drives the entire song, guitars that echo the same melody, a simple drum beat, two different piano parts, and simple verse/chorus vocal patterns. The song, along with others such as “We Used to Vacation” and “Hospital Beds” from the band’s debut, Robbers & Cowards, propelled the band to indie stardom. Critics applauded frontman Nathan Willett’s penchant for storytelling through songwriting and his ability to juxtapose his thoughts on murder and alcoholism with small, mundane life events. It’s as if Jack White’s raw rock power fused with Jeff Buckley’s eclecticism and unpredictability.
The most resonant aspects of “Hang Me Up to Dry” can be boiled down into one musical convention: syncopation—when accents are placed on offbeats, giving the music the intrinsic feeling of a bounce or swing (listen to the bassline of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” or the guitar lick in the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” for classic examples). But while it’s a common device in genres such as pop, hip-hop and especially jazz, Cold War Kids relies on syncopation to do the driving for the entire four minutes. The result is a hypnotic and infectious rock groove where all instruments are invited to play. The bass guitar introduces the hypnotic drone, while guitars and piano embellish it with their own respective supporting melodies. It’s almost as if Willett asked his bandmates to jam over a straightforward melody for him to riff over. And boy, is it catchy.
Willett’s lyrics follow in the same simplistic fashion as the music.It’s a metaphor that’s incredibly easy to follow, and the idiom could very well have stuck in the lexicon thanks to this tune. He implores that a one-sided relationship is akin to hanging wet clothes on a clothesline. “You’ve wrung me out too, too too many times,” he says. Structurally, the song is cut and dried; it follows the traditional verse/bridge/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus model that countless songs across genres have incorporated throughout history. This makes for a droney, palatable listen that’s easy to consume and ripe for the radio.
Though the song’s content is simplistic through and through, it’s a stark contrast from its historical context. Eleven years later, “Hang Me Up to Dry” harkens back to a period when the democratization of the music industry was still in its infancy. iTunes was the second largest seller of music in the United States in 2007, and digital media and hardware were hot commodities that were slipping away from record labels’ grips. Independent bands and labels used services such as TuneCore and DistroKid to broaden their reach, and label gatekeepers whose jobs were to promote and expose the bands in their circles were going by the wayside. Apple’s “Free Single of the Week” walked the happy medium between major and indie labels—exposing new and seasoned artists to different audiences. This would eventually evolve into the streaming revolution, where vast libraries are accessible with a few swipes and taps.
Every time I hear “Hang Me Up to Dry,” I’m reminded of a simpler time where I let my curiosity and hunger for something new take the wheel. These kinds of journeys during adolescence are often fruitful, and they leave an everlasting impact on personal taste, as they did for mine. I know daily lineups for Life Is Beautiful have yet to be released, but I’ve already carved out a slot for Cold War Kids. It’s mainly for nostalgia purposes, but I know I’ll discover much more.