Everybody’s favorite bar band and standard-bearers for the Detroit garage-rock archetype, those fabulous Detroit Cobras have gathered the gang for another run at reinventing a stack of dusty obscurities. And don’t let that sound dismissive when you read it. What the world needs now sure as shit ain’t another mopey buncha indie-rock twinks. And while the Cobras may not be rewriting any rule book, they’re still making loose-limbed rock, rhythm and jazz (as Mr. Berry said) that gives late-night tourists something to write home about and lifelong night owls a reason to shake their jaded asses.
Seven Easy Pieces is the follow-up to the band’s 2001 LP, Love, Life & Leaving, and it finds a new cast of characters assembled around the Cobras’ gang-deb core of guitarist Maribel Restrepo and singer Rachel Nagy. Most notably, the girls have old pal Greg Cartwright (aka Greg Oblivian and leader of the criminally little-known Reigning Sound) lending his six-string mojo and trademark growl-howl vocals to the mix. Former Black Crowe Eddie Harsh takes bass and keyboard duties and Rocket 455-a-teer Kenny Tudrick holds down the beat for the boogie, stomp, shout and lamentation shenanigans.
On paper, it’s an underdog supergroup. On record, it’s (mostly) a party. The Cobras conceit has always been that there’s no reason to try to top the work of great songwriters past. Rather, they concentrate on bending originals to their will.
Punchy, slippery, sexy and lowdown — this incarnation of the Cobras wraps its coils around Pops Staples’ “You Don’t Knock,” Willie Dixon’s “Insane Asylum” (as passed down through Koko Taylor, here rendered with Nagy, Cartwright and Tudrick taking a turn at the mic), the 5 Royales’ (or at least member Otto Jeffries’) “Silver & Gold” and a handful-minus-one of other cuts. (And some of the most fun you’ll have with a Cobras record when you’re not listening to it is tracking down the originals, cuz just like anything else, sometimes the names get tweaked, misspelled or partially credited. And sometimes the original authors are so obscured by time that the only digging you can do involves — gasp! — talking to other music heads to get the skinny.)
Anyhoo, the record opens with the sound of a zipper unzipping and a woman purring “verry niiice” and jumps smack-dab into the bash ’n’ romp soul rocker “Ya Ya Ya (Looking For My Baby),” and pretty much stays in the rumble seat. The Cobras come up for air toward the end with “Silver & Gold” — a showcase for Nagy and an instant late-night, empty-bottle classic — and the tense, unsettling run at “Insane Asylum.” Elsewhere, they head toward disposable territory with “My Baby Loves The Secret Agent” but right the ship swiftly with a punk jab through “Heartbeat” (authored by “Dirty Water” songwriter and Standells producer Ed Cobb).
While Nagy’s voice on the Cobras’ debut was a remarkable tool, here it’s a bona fide instrument — often eschewing showy growls, girlish gurgles and other overt histrionics for a nuanced delivery that complements the rhythm rock rather than runs roughshod over it.
Of course, having heard all but five of the original versions of these seven tunes puts yours truly at a distinct advantage over the average “Jackass” consumer who may never have even laid eyes on a record involving Pops Staples. So it’s down to the consumer to pick up the trail. But much like their kindred resurrectionists in the White Stripes, the Cobras give newbies a taste of just how vital and “new”-sounding classic R&B, pop, gospel and blues can be without resorting to post-modern blah blah bullshit. They stick to their guns and let the good times roll. So while they may not supplant Radiohead anytime soon as the critical wank gusher crushes du jour, they do roll — translating the band’s live energy to record most remarkably.
And that’s about the best compliment you can give to a band dedicated to the art of making the bad times sound good.
The Detroit Cobras will perform Saturday, June 21, at the Magic Bag (22920 Woodward, Ferndale) with the Greenhornes. For info, call 248-544-3030.
Chris Handyside writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail firstname.lastname@example.org.