Originally hailing from Evansville, Indiana and now based out of Nashville, Tennessee, the duo The Cold Stares features the combined talents of vocalist/guitarist Chris Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins. The genesis of the band in the later years of the century’s first decade led to the band becoming an ongoing concern in 2013 and they have established a reputation as one of the pre-eminent guitar driven acts on the indie scene over the last six years. Their new release Ways opens with the track “Any Way the Wind Blows” and the performance highlights their rock credentials. If you listened to this track and no other, it illustrates in vivid detail the bruising chemistry Tapp and Mullins share with each other. The opener owes clear musical debts. What night sound like pastiche, however, in the hands of another band comes across as iconoclastic and invigorating from The Cold Stares.
The title song continues pursuing a rock oriented attack, but the words are pulled from blues tradition without ever sounding pilfered from their betters. It’s remarkable how The Cold Stares can mine so many familiar veins in terms of sound and subject matter without ever sounding like they are a glorified cover act. Sincerity and imagination alike are key. Both of those values come to the fore with the album’s first acoustic track “Thorns”. The songwriting is more poetic here than any other included on the release, but it isn’t inaccessible high flown verbiage. Any listener will relate to the imagery and phrasing The Cold Stares utilize with this tune and the union of Tapp’s voice and the low-key musical accompaniment rates as one of their most individual achievements on the album.
“Into Black” and “Down Again” return to a rockier pose than the tracks immediately preceding them. They are solid, but unremarkable when compared to their illustrious counterparts. “I Ain’t the One” is a peak moment on Ways that turns to the Bible for inspiration, but Tapp isn’t looking to convert you to anything except, perhaps, being a fan of the band’s music. The track, instead, is more or less a colloquial and literal retelling of Christ and John the Baptist in the Jordan River and, to be honest, draws more of its inspiration from blues music than the Bible. You don’t need to be a Christian scholar to know this story; a few token Sunday School appearances will do. It’s another acoustic performance in the mold of the earlier “Thorns” and the band has a good instinct for placing these songs in sensible places on this album. Fine tuning an album’s running order is a lost art.
“Goin’ Down Easy” is a definite blues rock gem brimming with confidence and attitude alike, but the true highlights near the album’s end are “Headstone Blues” and “Jackson Mississippi”. The first track is the less remarkable of the two lyrically, but it has wry dark humor many will enjoy and blues fans will smile at how well Tapp uses the genre’s conventions in a creative way. “Jackson Mississippi”, the album’s second to last track, is a doozy. It has some light electric guitar accompaniment, but is is largely acoustic and has a stronger storytelling structure than any other cut on the release. The Cold Stares cover the gamut of what their listeners want with Ways and there are a number of tracks on this release certain to be mainstays of their live act for years to come.
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