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Wednesday, May 9, 2007 01:40 am

Cover-up

Detroit Cobras make a career of playing other peopleÂ’s music well

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Detroit Cobras Tied & True (Bloodshot)
Untitled Document To call the Detroit Cobras a cover band is not inaccurate, but it misses the point. Although it’s true that the Cobras’ repertoire consists almost entirely of other people’s songs — their fourth and latest full-length, Tied & True, contains not one original track — the Motor City outfit hardly fits the cover-band stereotype. Essentially the cover band’s M.O. is to play songs that people recognize and do one of two things: either reproduce the familiar version as closely as possible, in the tradition of countless tribute bands and wedding-reception hired guns, or attempt to improve on, update, deconstruct, or reinvent the source material. Although one act implies self-denial and the other self-assertion, both depend on one crucial condition: that someone recognize the act of appropriation. Without some conception of the way the song is supposed to sound, would the drunken bridesmaid bellow “Freebird” all night long and, at the fulfillment of her request, clamber onto the crepe-festooned table for an impromptu air-guitar solo? Or when the indie-band du jour launches into a sloppy Syd Barrett cover during the second encore, how, without any prior knowledge, would the insecure rockdudes exchange the all-important “Dude, I’ve got this on vinyl” glances, the ocular handshake of the hipster elite? In other words, what happens if a band plays a cover and no one realizes it?
The Detroit Cobras have made a career of answering that question. Core members Rachel Nagy and Mary Ramirez don’t categorically shun well-known material (Tied & True offers a raucous version of Little Willie John’s “Leave My Kitten Alone,” a song that any self-respecting Beatles fan knows by heart), but the bulk of their selections seem designed to stump all but the most hardcore of vinyl fetishists. For every listener who can identify “As Long as I Have You” as a Bob Elgin/Norman Meade composition popularized by Garnet Mimms, there are a few hundred who have no idea who those people are. And who cares? Archivists of the unjustifiably obscure, the Cobras come off like pop apostles in thrall to forgotten messiahs, not like pathetic geeks who need to impress people with their awesome record collections. Sure, it’s an entertaining parlor game, comparing and contrasting one performance with another, but rock & roll doesn’t belong in the parlor, chumps. Sleazy, soulful, and fiercely economical, Tied & True, like previous Cobras releases, is the kind of music whose true element is the smoky dive. Nagy’s voice, a gutbucket growl marinated in cigarettes and bourbon, isn’t perfect — her runs are blurry in spots, and the lower end of her range is a barely audible rumble — but it has more hardboiled moxie than a Barbara Stanwyck double feature. It’s also the perfect complement to Ramirez’s greasy garage-rock licks, her unmistakably Detroit-steeped mixture of girl-group grandeur and R&B grit. The rest of the band, which includes drummer Kenny Tudrick, bassist Carol Schumacher, and co-guitarist Greg Cartwright, isn’t superfancy, but it gets the job done, almost invariably before the three-minute mark. With its jabby little hooks and lurching rhythms, “If You Don’t Think” has a propulsive pell-mell fury, and the equally adrenalized “Leave My Kitten Alone” is as dirty as a catfight in a truck-stop restroom. But the album also finds the Cobras exploring slower, more vulnerable territory, as on the piano-kissed “Try Love” and the hypnotically vampy “Puppet on a String.” When Nagy’s voice cracks and breaks on “You’ll Never Change,” it achieves the Platonic ideal of horndog pathos, a rallying cry to every sadomasochistic, co-dependent, sorry-ass fool who ever drunk-dialed an ex. Tied and True, indeed.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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