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.

Becky Lynch Returned — Was it Horrible or Genius?

Let’s say you were reading a book, and you stopped after every page to think about where the story was going. And while you were thinking, your concern wasn’t so much with the characters and their motivations as presented to you, but with what you think should have happened based mostly on second-hand rumors and speculation you’ve heard about the writer, who you assume to be a complete idiot even though they are wildly successful in their field. Would even the greatest book ever written actually seem good under those conditions? This offers some insight into how a lot of hardcore fans interact with WWE — they are the most myopic and reactionary people on earth. The plus side from WWE’s perspective is that makes them easily manipulated, and at last Saturday’s Summerslam event they pulled off a troll job for the ages.

Background:

Becky Lynch, my favorite wrestler, became pregnant last year and hasn’t been seen on TV since April 2020. At the time she stepped away from WWE, Becky was being pushed harder than anyone and she never actually lost her belt in a match, instead relinquishing it due to her pregnancy. While there was initially some doubt expressed by Becky herself over her future in wrestling, rumors have been swirling for a long time that she was on her way to a return, and fans were speculating heavily over how it would be done. Because Becky is very popular and had an infamous botched heel turn (reported on at the time by me) that catapulted her to success, the assumption made by everyone was that she’d remain a babyface.

With Becky out, WWE needed to create a new top babyface, and they went all in on Bianca Belair, who in many ways represents the perfect WWE wrestler. She has a cool look, she can talk, she’s a legitimate freakish athlete, she can do a variety of media appearances, and she was built as a wrestler from the ground up in their own performance center, which means she was trained into the WWE way of doing things and is a team player. Adding to Bianca’s current trendy feel is that she is a black woman, making her the company’s answer to popular athletes like Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka while also potentially crossing over to the massive hip hop audience by collaborating with rappers like Megan Thee Stallion. Belair won the Royal Rumble in January, beat Sasha Banks in a highly acclaimed match in a Wrestlemania main event for the Smackdown women’s championship, and has been flying high since with a streak of wins over various opponents. Summerslam was supposed to be the rematch between those two, but an unknown issue kept Banks out of the event, creating a domino effect that led to the controversial segment which I will try to recap very briefly.

First, WWE plays a hype package of the Banks/Belair feud, implying that the match is still on. Belair’s music hits and she does her usual entrance to the ring. Then the ring announcer says Sasha cannot compete and is being replaced by Carmella, an annoying low-card heel who Belair has already beaten roughly 800 times this year. Carmella comes out and the crowd is grumbling as it seems this nothing match is really what they’re getting instead of Sasha/Bianca. Then Becky’s music hits for the first time in a year and a half and the crowd goes nuts. Becky makes her entrance, and I note live that she is acting kind of weird (sort of being over-the-top happy with the fans in a way that seems disingenuous), but I don’t think a lot about it because it’s her first appearance back and she might just be really excited. Belair reacts to this similarly to the fans — she is putting over Becky as a legend she is thrilled to share the ring with. Becky looks at Bianca, then throws Carmella out of the ring, bashes her into the steel steps, and gets back in the ring to stare down Bianca and let the moment sink in. Then Becky grabs a mic and says (this is important): “what do you say we blow the roof off this joint, for the Smackdown women’s championship?” Bianca, being a typical babyface who takes on all challenges, accepts. The bell rings, they circle each other, then Becky extends her hand for a handshake. Belair accepts it, but Becky cheapshots Belair and hits another move to win the title from her in roughly 30 seconds.

Reaction to this has been uniformly negative. Anyone can google around to find discussion, but the short version is fans were extremely unhappy that the popular champion Belair got “squashed” and “buried.” They didn’t like that Becky, presumably a babyface, finally got her big return and instead of it being happy, it ended up being confusing and weird. They didn’t like that the match was so brief and wished they could have put on a great match for the fans. But I thought this was possibly genius, and will go over goals I think this segment accomplished that make me excited about the future.

Goal One: Turn Becky Lynch Heel

There have been casual discussions about whether Lynch could ever be a heel, and I didn’t think WWE would even try due to her popularity. Even now, arguably this is something they shouldn’t try, and I’m open to that critique of this segment. But I feel like she is in a different place now than last time they tried it, and there was no better way to get her “heat” than to have her be the Karen white lady who tramples all over the dream title reign of the top face who has come to represent Black Excellence in WWE.

A lot of this segment clicks into place when viewed as something that is supposed to make fans upset because it’s a heel turn. Becky’s behavior throughout is trollish, and the giveaway is her “let’s blow the roof off” line. She promises the crowd a great match, then wins in 30 seconds with an underhanded tactic. More of this will be fleshed out on TV, but early reports are that Lynch is indeed a heel and it was her idea to try it. Obviously I think very highly of Lynch as a performer and I’m actually glad she is doing something new and turning before she became fully stale to the audience.

Goal two: Progress Bianca Belair’s Character While Making Her Extremely Sympathetic

To this point, Belair has been a squeaky clean babyface whose weakness is that she is a bit gullible and can be taken advantage of. It’s pretty easy to imagine Becky sitting at home, watching Belair, and thinking she can manipulate her to get back the title in the exact way she did it. This type of setback should set off a fire in Belair; I expect her to come back with more of an edge.

Belair comes out of this situation with a visceral level of sympathy from the fans, most of whom are saying how disgusted they are that she got screwed by WWE out of her title while not even getting a match. There is some irony in seeing people say this is “horrible booking” while also having the exact emotions it was intended to evoke from them. And wrestling in the end is about creating strong emotions in the audience, even if it involves some trolling and possibly some logic breaks. This made people want to see Bianca get her title back in a powerful way, more so than if she just lost it in a straight up match. And because we know this is all pre-determined, nobody actually thinks Bianca is worse because she lost a quick match through underhanded tactics to a top star that tricked her.

The Ultimate Goal: Elevate Bianca Belair to Becky Lynch’s Level of Stardom

This sounds weird to say since she just dropped her title in 30 seconds, but the more I think about this, the more I think this story is WWE showing a tremendous amount of confidence in Bianca Belair. One reason it seemed insane to ever turn Lynch heel is that there wouldn’t be a babyface who could equal her (without a strong face, fans would just gravitate towards Lynch and cheer her instead). The way this played out indicates to me that WWE believes Bianca is likable enough and a strong enough character to make this work. And based on the initial anger and “Bianca deserves better” sentiment going around, it seems like they’re off to a very strong start. At the very least, it is worth watching this play out, especially given Lynch’s strengths as a character and on the microphone.

A lot of fans think this was a “burial” of Belair, which I find utterly absurd. WWE likes money, and they very obviously see a lot of money to be made from Belair, who is immensely marketable and talented. Comparisons have been made to when Kofi Kingston lost to Brock Lesnar a couple years ago, but that was a very different scenario where he lost in a more decisive fashion and was more obviously a guy they didn’t see as a top talent. What’s more likely is that WWE wants fans to think Belair is being buried as a way to generate sympathy for her. I realize it is hard for fans who are really invested in Belair to see it now, but from my standpoint it feels like this story is actually being done in service of Belair, to try to take her to another level.

Wrestling fans live in this weird bubble where they think it’s a good story for a babyface to beat everybody and never show weakness. In any other medium, a hero is defined by the obstacles they face and how they are able to overcome them. This was an obstacle for Bianca Belair and I suspect the end goal is her beating Lynch for the title in an actual match. This is WWE though, and this segment proved how much they like swerving the audience, so it’s often fruitless to try to speculate too far in the future. Either way, this angle created a lot of speculation, emotion, and intrigue, so it is hard for me to see how it was terrible unless you are someone who is purely getting worked by WWE.

To be clear, I like it when fans get worked and there isn’t any shame in it. Part of why I don’t like AEW is I don’t think anything they do provokes real reactions like this that almost exist outside of the wrestling universe. But there are fans who act like they know everything, always have negative knee-jerk reactions, and then get played like a fiddle, which will always be very funny to me. It’s possible I’m totally wrong about all of this (in which case I’ll delete this post later), but it seems like almost everyone commenting on wrestling — including the like 40+ year-old dudes who run wrestling sites and have devoted their whole life to covering this silly pseudo-sport — are wildly wrong about this angle and are judging the entire book after misinterpreting the first page.