Talkhouse Contributing Writer Zachary Lipez is the former singer for Freshkills and the current singer of Publicist UK. He writes the “Adult Problems” column for Noisey/VICE. He also contributes to Hazlitt, MySpace, and Vol.1 Brooklyn. His most recent book, with Nick Zinner and Stacey Wakefield, is Please Take Me Off the Guest List (Akashic Books, 2010). He tends bar at 124 Rabbit Club. You can follow him on Twitter here.
First of all, thank fucking Christ this album is tough. It’s not “summery” or “soaring” or “shimmering” or any of that other shit that bands with lovely harmonizing over taut beats from California, Brooklyn, or combinations of the two, can so often be. This album is tense and sad, like Electrelane on Adderall and cheap gin.
When I use the word “tough” to discuss the San Francisco band Cold Beat’s first album, Over Me, I’m not saying it sounds like a hard (rock) or heavy (metal) album; rather, it’s tough like an older sibling with a few dead friends under their belt. When you’re young and idiotic (and I maybe am just talking about myself here — I bet you were wonderful) it’s hard to associate strength with anything that sounds pretty. The first time I heard Sam Cooke or Linda Thompson, I was entirely flummoxed by why punks I knew liked them; their voices were so… pleasant to my ears that they were almost indistinct. They, like, weren’t growling at all, so how could what they were doing be construed as emotional? Why weren’t they shouting?
As I grew older and (slightly) less horrifically stupid, I began to grasp nuance and adult complexity. Mind you, I still prefer Sheer Terror stepping on my throat and shouting to the restrained mewling of your average Real Estate, but at least I can grasp that sometimes “pretty” can be dark as hell. You probably grasped that a lot earlier but, as we’ve established, maybe you’re wonderful and I am stupid.
Cold Beat is the new band from Hannah Lew, who was previously (and perhaps still is… she seems unclear on this herself… ) in Grass Widow, a band that got called “discordant” and “charming” a lot. In critic-speak, “discordant” and “charming” is often code for “for some reason the band and I think drums sounding like cardboard is a good and punk idea.” For myself, I was always wary of them because I saw them first with and, therefore, associated them with the band No Age, a band I have a truly irrational hatred for (and by “irrational” I mean, I don’t have a reason to hate them besides always thinking of them as Scientology rock and holding them directly responsible for the even more awful Japandroids). But, really, that’s hardly Grass Widow’s fault. Grass Widow just weren’t my cup of tea, but lots of my pals loved them to death and, truly, what the fuck do I know?
It’s probably uncool of me to criticize Lew’s old band, and I don’t have a very strong opinion on them either way, so let’s just emphasize how much I love the Cold Beat record. The shambolic “charm” (seriously, I can’t tell you, whether you’re Pavement, Beat Happening or the Moldy Peaches, how little I value charm in rock & roll music) of Grass Widow has been replaced with a dagger to the heart. Drummer Bianca Sparta, of the perpetually sick-as-hell Erase Errata, is invaluable, and guitarist Kyle King alternates between peace-punk by way of the Feelies’ drive and late Pretenders ax-man James Honeyman-Scott’s punctuating strum.
The directness of Lew’s vocals and, yeah, their pretty toughness, really does it for me. She layers them as to get that aforementioned Electrelane choral effect, so it’s post-punk church with every song. All the while Cold Beat are studiously avoiding the sunny almost-but-not-quite-girl-group meandering that plagued so many of Brooklyn’s (to be clear, not just female) Flying Nun Records revivalists of a few years back; unlike so many bands that claim to love post-punk, nobody here seems bored.
On the negative, as the lyrics are a bit obscured by Lew’s crystalline singing, I can’t necessarily tell each song apart as the album progresses. But I can’t tell Tragedy or My Bloody Valentine songs apart either, I generally can only tell “If the Kids Are United” apart from all other songs ever recorded in the history of time, so that’s not really a problem for me. I do know that all the songs have enough interesting parts and variation that, even if, gun to my head, I couldn’t tell you which song was named what, I at least keep restarting the album every time it’s over (I know “OSOTW” is the last song on the album cuz when it’s over, the music stops), which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for most albums I hear. Hell, there’s “classic” albums of the last few years that I’m still trying to get past song three on.
Having read a number of Hannah Lew interviews, I know that her concerns are both personal and political. I tend to both agree with her that they are impossible to disconnect from one another, and I admire her refusal to retreat into either cynicism or the DIY-by-dint-of-privilege denial of the realities of the system she operates in. She’s said she’d license music for money. It doesn’t seem like a decision she’s taken lightly. I feel strongly that labor has value, so good for her. I’d start a multi-national corporation and give her oodles of cash to shill for it right now if I could. ZackCorp would be largely benign.
It should also be noted that a portion of the revenue made from Over Me goes to the charitable organization, Charity: Water, which is a non-profit devoted to funding clean and accessible water in developing countries. While everyone is discussing the future of the industry, with both (former bandmate of Lew’s) Frankie Rose and (not, as far as I know, former band mate of Lew’s) Taylor Swift, on the same day, writing interesting, opposite takes on how each will be attempting to navigate what comes next, Cold Beat has self-released, on Lew’s imprint Crime on the Moon, a vibrant, dark and thrilling document that, with real-world dollars, attempts to interact with the world outside music. This is certainly not every musician’s responsibility, but all the same it’s admirable. So, duh, don’t stream this, you fucking nerds, BUY IT.
Over Me, according to Hannah Lew, is about sorrow and isolation. It’s also about the alienation that Lew feels, as the city becomes a playground for a new and apparently endlessly obnoxious tech-boom class. As a second-wave gentrifier of Williamsburg from the ‘90s, I’m nervous of (usually white) artists complaining about something that they (we) helped set in motion, but Lew is a San Francisco native so she gets a pass. And anyway, Cold Beat aren’t a single-issue band. Over the course of 13 songs, they’re vivifying but subtle, sad and driving, emotionally complex and extremely tough.