Cold Comfort

Coldplay reinvigorates the power ballad for the MTV2 generation

It's the first weekend in August, and roughly 1,000 people are crowded into Chicago's sparkling little Vic Theatre. Onstage, Coldplay -- the stylishly sensitive quartet famously dismissed as "bed-wetters" by former Creation Records big cheese Alan McGee -- is treating the crowd to tracks from its delicious sophomore album, A Rush of Blood to the Head. Also in the house is MTV2, which is casting cinematic light on the album's considerable post-Yellow shadow to simulcast the intentionally abbreviated early-evening concert for the corn-chip-and-couch-addled masses.

Well before Coldplay was to close with its signature hit (the aforementioned "Yellow," from the band's debut album, Parachutes), an unusual buzz surrounded tracks from a record so new that it had yet to spawn its first single. Kids in tiny T-shirts sang along, word for word, with stubble-faced heartthrob Chris Martin's dramatic, hallmark falsetto. By the time Martin launched into the dreamy ballad "In My Place," the crowd seemed to know they were bearing witness to a seminal performance from a previously humble, talented and unfairly pigeonholed band of well-educated Brits who were destined for the heady hinterlands of critical pop acclaim.

Then MTV2's feed went down -- and on that day, MTV2's feed served as president, founder and CEO of Coldplay and its fawning Wicker Park audience. Coldplay was therefore ordered to stop midsong, as if the band was still trying to get the knobs set during sound check rather than actively entertaining an adoring crowd on the edges of their seats. Most frontmen, besotted by ego, would probably tell M2's hipster cronies to go fuck themselves after such an artistically galling moment. But not Martin, who launched into an impromptu, piano-tinged rendition of Nelly's "Hot in Herre," then at the apex of its sweaty-hot popularity on the Billboard charts.

Wouldn't it be perfect if Coldplay, whose Rush is still basking in the critical glow of many a top-ten list and "instant classic" branding, were to cover the lead Lunatic's paean to perspiration-drenched foreplay in the River City? Don't count on it, says Martin, when asked whether he thinks he'll repeat the feat in St. Louis next week.

"Not really, no. It just comes out occasionally," Martin says by phone. "When you're skinny little white boys, you don't feel like you can get away with singing hip-hop. At the moment, what's making us flip out is Missy Elliott's new song ["Work It"]. It's just a way of us showing respect for things we love."

Among the bands Coldplay respects, strives to emulate and gets compared to the most are U2 and Radiohead. It's no surprise, given that Martin cites War and OK Computer as two of his ten all-time-favorite albums. For now, the band has sought to emulate Dublin's finest primarily on the humanitarian front: Martin recently traveled to Haiti to promote fair trade for economically disadvantaged countries. "There are many countries that are just strangled at the moment by America and England," Martin explains. "Free trade means you can just dump your surplus on countries; fair trade means you can't."

Viewed in terms of its sonic and commercial arcs, Rush is most akin to another Radiohead record, the spectacularly underrated The Bends. Months before that release, Radiohead had emerged from virtual obscurity to notch the unexpected megahit "Creep," followed by the inevitable "one-hit-wonder" backlash. Radiohead silenced its critics with 1995's Bends, a lush, rock-solid twelve-song collection that, despite yielding a handful of small-scale hits, best served its listeners as a knockout album.

In an uncannily parallel set of professional circumstances, Coldplay's Rush is precisely to "Yellow" as Bendswas to "Creep." But unlike Radiohead's brilliant but annoyingly pretentious lead vocalist, Thom Yorke, the witty, folksy Martin admits to jonesing for the title of "greatest rock band ever," a pedestal openly sought -- and arguably scaled -- by U2. Whereas Yorke and company drift toward an isolated, neo-Icelandic art-rock corner of the music world, one currently occupied by Sigur Rós and Bjork, Martin and his mates would welcome another "Yellow." "Obviously we'd love to have a hit single," says Martin. "When we write every song, we want it to be "Bohemian Rhapsody." But we just wanted to convince people that we're not a flash in the pan."

The band's essentially achieved that goal, even winning over skeptics who instinctively frown on anything less raw than the sort of cacophonous butt-rock favored by the Hives and their overrated peers. There will always be haters -- but Martin has a grumpy epitaph for neither the player nor the game.

"I understand that people hate us," says Martin. "My girlfriend's brother said, 'Just think about the millions of people who hate you.' If the other guy doesn't hit you, you don't train yourself. The more people who criticize us, the more work we have to do."

Such is the attitude one must assume when aspiring to immortality, and, with Rush, Coldplay's certainly in the ballpark. No single song off Rush reaches the hooky, melodramatic heights of Yellow; nor, frankly, is any of the eleven tracks as delicious to the eardrums. But unlike Parachutes, which earned the band a gaggle of industry awards, Rush -- especially on tracks "God Put a Smile Upon Your Face," "Politik" and "Clocks" -- shows that Coldplay sports a respectable power game to go with its ballyhooed finesse.

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