The Detroit Cobras Make Everything Clear

DetroitCobras_promo1Alright, I know this is a little out of character for me lately, but I want to go way out on a limb here and recommend that you all leave your little huts next Wednesday, June 27th , and scamper down to the Wellfleet Beachcomber to see a new, tough little band called the Detroit Cobras. For any right-thinking American, leaving the house nowadays has to be regarded as a potentially hazardous proposition; yet I truly believe that these guys -once described as the Ronettes crossed with the Rolling Stones in Motown (!! -I mean, how cool would /that/ be?) – might be, uh, fun.

I use the term “guys” rather loosely here, as two of these guys, namely co-leaders Rachel Nagy on vocals and Mary Ramirez on guitar, clearly aren’t. There’s plenty of bad girl attitude to their work, but it’s nicely understated (and, unlike Cape Cod’s original, beloved bad girl group, the Extremes -and when will that reunion finally happen? – endearingly under-dressed, as the band uniform seems to lean heavily toward whatever-I-had-on-in-the-van wear.)

These folks play with a serious kick, loud and proud and relatively unadorned, and the music is a sort of rocked-up soul thing, but with a minimum of guitar effects and arena rock hooey. The guitars sound like guitars, careless and clangy, maybe not all that far from Joe Strummer-ville, and the drummer kicks. And the clear aim is to make you dance and go nuts, except for the occasional ballads, which were made for melting. Most of their songs sound like they were recorded in about half an hour, and there’s a feeling of abandon to it that’s just swell. Some of it’s cave man stuff, but it’s smart cave-man stuff (or, if you prefer, cave-person.)

One of the most distinctive and delightful things about the band is that they more or less steadfastly refuse to write their own songs, to which I can only say, thank you. The number of awful songwriters on tap lately has truly mushroomed out of control, and I’d like to thank the Detroit Cobras for at least trying to stem the tide. Plus, the material they pick is masterful, and obviously born of large record collections and dogged pursuit, alternating between obscure songs that you can’t believe someone else knew about and obscure songs that you didn’t know about. It’s record collector’s heaven: Ruby Johnson, the Cookies, the Blossoms, the Staple Singers, Sugar Pie DeSanto, Tammi Terrell, etc. (plus, the goils are really cute, and look like they might be on something.)

Even with all these other assets, though, the thing that really cinches the deal is singer Rachel Nagy, who had all sorts of interesting things to say -including “it’s ironic that I’m a singer, ’cause it has always been my view that white women should not sing.” From that point on, we got along famously.

Rachel’s a great singer, not just a good one. She understands that the first focus of a singer shouldn’t be showing off or belting or giving it all you got or putting in ten more doo-dads per syllable; it should be about singing the damn song, period, in a way that lets you know how the songwriter felt. For someone working a genre that sometimes leans toward histrionics, she has a restraint that’s very intriguing.

More than anyone, Nagy sounds like Irma Thomas, most obviously on the Irma covers, “It’s Raining”, “Breakaway”, and especially a just plain perfect version of “Cry On.” There’s a little of that bluesy feeling throughout, though: beat up, resigned, but sweet. She calls Irma “my godhead, my hero. I saw her live at her club in New Orleans [since washed away in Katrina, alas] and fell on the ground, screamed and cried. I could’ve washed her feet with my tears and hair.” She got it.

Plus, she just turns out to be one of those rare people with pipes, an instantly satisfying and unadulterated sound so compelling that… well, I don’t really buy that whole reading-the-phonebook analogy, but she’s got pipes, and pipes is good. You don’t have to show it off, everybody knows from note one.

Ms. Nagy seemed to share my feelings on the tragic lack of smoke in bars nowadays (“I mean, it’s New York in the winter and you’re supposed to stand outside and smoke -that’s retarded!”), coddling of modern chillens through excessive monitoring of various health issues (“They’re gonna turn 25 and a butterfly’s gonna land on their head and they’re gonna have an aneurysm”) (and how’d we ever get going on that, anyway?), hatred of the singing of Janis Joplin (otherwise Janis seemed ok), and of people who get all bent out out of shape when they lose children (especially people who have multiples to begin with. After all, as Rachel pointed out, “you can always have more kids.”)

At one point, she did imply that the band was born joyfully out of the record collection of its founder, since-departed guitarist Steve Shaw. She said she never meant to be a singer, and that she was plied with drinks early on, when the band played for the best reason, which is wanting to make those noises enough. “We sort of pulled a fast one -we said we were gonna break up, and then as soon as [Steve] left, Mary and I giggled and started up again. The only reason we keep boys around is as archivists; the girls job is to dance and sing.”

I like a girl with her feet on the ground.

The Cobras’ five records have their ups and downs, but the ups are pretty wonderful; their best album might still be 2001’s “Life, Love, and Leaving”, though their latest, “Tied and True”, gives it a run for its money; the one Cobras’ original, the fabulous, hilarious, “Hot Dog”, is on 2005’s “Baby”. They’re a good downloading project, as you might not need whole albums, but there’s songs here that will rock your world.

And they’ve never been here before, and who knows when they’ll pass this way again? Those who must rock should be in attendance.

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