Cold Beat’s “War Garden” is a Pandemic-Era Triumph

One of the singles off Cold Beat’s latest, War Garden, is called “Mandelbrot Fall,” and it might be their best song yet. Somewhere around my 50th time listening to it, I realized I had no idea what a “Mandelbrot” was, so I went to Wikipedia because I hate not knowing things. The page for the “Mandelbrot Set” had a lot of words on it that seemed to pertain to advanced mathematics. There were also some pretty pictures of some psychedelic circles and spirals, which apparently are what the Mandelbrot set looks like, because I guess math functions can look like something. I still wasn’t smart enough to understand much of this, but one paragraph on the page was in words I kind of understood and thus caught my attention:

The Mandelbrot set has become popular outside mathematics both for its aesthetic appeal and as an example of a complex structure arising from the application of simple rules. It is one of the best-known examples of mathematical visualizationmathematical beauty, and motif.

One of the staples of this blog has been me gushing about Cold Beat but not really being able to put my finger on why I love them so much. Posts about them would often be me trying to think of different ways to write “I like this song because it sounds good.” But seeing this paragraph about the Mandelbrot set, it all clicked for me: this is what Cold Beat is. Their music is complex intellectually, but also made of these simple elements; it’s definitely brainy and analytical, but also at times beautiful. The songs on War Garden, more than any others they’ve recorded, reflect this perfect balance of attributes that seem like they would be incongruous — kind of like an equation, though I guess that is branching into chemistry instead of geometry.

Cold Beat is even more firmly on the synth pop path here, and I’ve been recently learning more about some of their influences for these albums, including The Human League and (more obscurely) Oppenheimer Analysis. Certainly there is an 80s vibe going on in the sound, but I still find this to be an original band — there’s a very specific yet intangible mood to a Cold Beat song that I haven’t really found in anything else. “Mandelbrot Fall” is a quintessential example, with the wistful feeling from the nostalgic synths, Hannah Lew’s warm vocals, and the swirling melodies all colliding into this pop song that feels familiar and futuristic all at once. Another highlight, “Weeds,” is similarly constructed, with some indie rock guitar joining the synth, creating a song that is an addictive mix of these different influences and moods. A lot of bands simply replicate old sounds they like; Cold Beat uses ideas from the past to make something completely new.

Befitting this retro-futuristic sound, War Garden feels like it is simultaneously looking backwards and forwards. A lot of it deals with the pandemic, and mid-album songs like “See You Again” (probably the most straight-forward thing they’ve written) and “Year Without a Shadow” deal with the now-familiar themes of isolation and missing your friends. There’s the nostalgia in those songs for better days, but on “See You Again” especially, there are also feelings of resolve and faith — the idea that “I will see you again,” which Lew sings like she’s holding onto something that will keep her going through tough times. The final song on the album, “New World,” has an even more optimistic tone, with a more upbeat danceable pop style. Cold Beat songs tend to be vague and malleable by design, but I feel a clear progression in the sound on War Garden from the darker days of the pandemic to the possibility of a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s a tricky thing to be optimistic these days without it coming off as dopey or na├»ve, but it’s pulled off here in typical nuanced fashion. It’s less “things are gonna be great!” or “nothing bad is happening” and more about holding onto dreams and a belief that there are still good days ahead. It sounds like one of Lew’s pandemic activities was gardening, and accordingly the band gave out flower seeds with each vinyl order of War Garden, with the idea that it would bloom into a flower while it shipped. This nod towards growth and rejuvenation is a big part of the album, and the flower represents the way I’m thinking of War Garden as something beautiful and hopeful amidst darkness and chaos. Cold Beat has been on a run of great albums, but this one feels particularly special. It’s their most human and accessible work so far, and it captures the complicated pandemic feelings better than anything I’ve heard.

Colleen Green has Matured (A Little) On “Cool”

Like a lot of people, I was saddened a few weeks ago by the death of Norm MacDonald, who I consider to be possibly the funniest guy who ever lived. One of the things I appreciated about Norm was how, in an era with a lot of “smart” comics who fancy themselves as philosophers, he was very willing to play the idiot. Some of Norm’s most iconic clips are him just acting like a goofball around people who are trying to be serious, and I often came away thinking he had just outsmarted all the people he was talking to, even as they were trying to appear intelligent and he was cracking stupid jokes. Norm really was the smartest guy in the room, in part because he didn’t care about revealing it to others.

I get some similar vibes from Colleen Green, who just released Cool, her first album since 2015’s I Want to Grow Up. I was obsessed with that album on a couple different levels: emotionally, I related strongly to the lyrics, and analytically I was fascinated with its weird kind of unassuming greatness. In a lot of ways, the album broke convention from the type of stuff I normally hype up: it was not even remotely subtle, it didn’t have a lot of creativity or ambition, and I doubt even Green herself would claim to be a particularly virtuosic musician who makes sounds you’ve never heard before. This made it an easy album for a lot of listeners to dismiss after one or two listens, and because Green presents herself in a somewhat frivolous manner (the jokes and stoner girl imagery), it never got much in the way of critical praise.

But I argued (and still do) that Green is a lot smarter than she gets credit for. She knows her own limitations and within those boundaries makes songs that are consistently fun to listen to and affecting while having the musical equivalent of character development. Her direct, unpretentious approach works largely because of her unflinching honesty. Of course, the majority of artists are honest, but there’s a difference between what I think of as “convenient honesty” and what Green does. Most will reveal themselves through art, but only the parts that still make them seem sympathetic, wise, or good. Green is very willing to sing about foibles that don’t necessarily paint her in a positive light to some listeners, which is both realer and a lot more brave. When I listened to “Deeper Than Love,” I had no doubt those were her real feelings, because why would anyone make that up?

I Want to Grow Up paired that brutal honesty with mostly straight-forward, loud guitar rock, creating an experience that was like being pummeled over and over again by reality, but in a way that was weirdly enjoyable. On Cool, Green has matured somewhat; there’s more of a variety of sounds and moods, which makes the album a little less directly impactful. The atmospheric “Highway” uses a synth and Green’s near-spoken delivery to replicate a night drive — Green says she prefers the scenic route, which I suspect is a metaphor for the ambling pace she lives her life at. The most adventurous track is “Natural Chorus,” which is pretty much Colleen Green does Stereolab. Most of the song is a simple motorik groove, and it’s another point where she shows a willingness to create more subtle moods with sound, along with the long opening riff on “Someone Else” and a closing guitar instrumental, the questionably-titled “Pressure to Cum.”

Those songs add some textures to the album, but Green is still most in her element when she’s making simple guitar pop that shows her personality. “You Don’t Exist” is a relentlessly catchy tune where she “calls bullshit” on social media, and “It’s Nice to Be Nice” has her reminding herself to be kinder to others (“it’s nice to be nice, it’s good to be good”) and reap the rewards. In typical form, this isn’t the most groundbreaking material, but Green presents it in a refreshing way. She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, like she is the teacher instructing her listener students — she’s just exploring her own feelings in a way that is always direct and unpretentious, with a mix of seriousness and humor. Even as she explores new styles and matures, her ability to do that is what makes Green one of my favorite songwriters to listen to.