by Dylan Pennell (@dylan_pennell)
The further along we all come in the timeline of modern music the clearer it becomes that despite persistence, some genres exhausted themselves from the get-go. These grievances can compound considerably when the genre in question seems built on a wet marsh of lazily played instruments, deliberately marble-mouthed annunciations, and an overall slipshod ethos to putting it all together. While that very same lackadaisical philosophy can make for a hell of a party soundtrack and a barn burner of a show, it’s hard to contain that on an album and even harder for that quality to endure. Sure we have enduring garage-rock albums that have lodged themselves in the craws of disheveled-haired youths all over the globe, but would anyone really ever put The Strokes in the same boat as Black Lips? I didn’t think so. Though a type of garage rose to prominence in the early aughts it always felt at odds with the genre’s history and with the stylistic cornerstones of it that have endured in functioning bands to this day. Miles below the pop nuggetry of The Strokes, Thee Oh Sees, Parquet Courts, and even The Stooges is a world still reveling in the not-quite-there songwriting of The Sonics, The Monks, and endless Nuggets compilations. The latter group bearing evidence of some incredible and unprecedented energy, but never hitting the songwriting peaks that modern acts would later fulfill. However, here we are in 2017 and no one is trying to sound like The Strokes anymore, on scales neither large nor small. But look, despite the lack of enduring classics, the smaller world of garage rock - your King Khan’s, your Giorgio Murderers, your Miss Destinys - has persisted despite never getting its hooks into the critics or the culture in any significant way. So how does it manage to keep going? How do countless bands continue to churn out album after album, song after song mining the energy stores at the fountain of youth?
On Bloomington, Indiana’s The Cowboys' third album - again self-titled - the band reveal themselves to be stylistic pirates, but perfectly willing to pilfer poppier and more dynamic styles in what seems like a robust response to this line of questioning. The measures here might not revitalize the world of garage, but it’s nearly always been a genre interested in baby steps, so, for now, The Cowboys make it easy to revel in the promise of what could be. This might make it sound like what The Cowboys have is premature or ill-defined, but nope; what they have here is fully realized and tantamount to the finest garage offerings of the past five years.
Between rollicking could-be standards like “Hands of Love” and rave ups like “Take Me Back” are a series of tracks which venture into exciting terrain for the band and the genre itself. The first of these tracks, titled “Mike’s Dust” recasts the band as crooners in the cold, a band of misfits standing on an icy lake warming themselves with the gentle embrace of their songs. Jauntily rolling pianos usher the band into an era of warmth and tunefulness rarely present in their output. Up against the party that is the rest of the record, “Mike’s Dust,” and later on “Like a Man,” the band gives themselves room to breath and bandleader Keith Harmon to construct lovely melodies out of his smooth Scott McCaughey-like croon, which - Surprise! - is more supple than the bands punkier moments would have ever given you reason to believe.
Elsewhere, the band continues to shift the stubborn pillars of the genre on “Lickety Split” and “Prized Pig, the former of which shows off Zackery Worcel’s infectiously catchy bass playing to transcendent effect. However, these fleeting moments of jangly and jarringly thoughtful passage might not offer the gratifying respite they do were it not for the breakneck speed of the party happening all around them. As indicated on first track “Hands of Love,” this band has their tunefulness in check and energy to spare. Here Harman’s nasal pleas bemoan the ways in which our passions drive us to suffer before infectiously intoning “I wish that I could surrender to you, but I’m on a bender.” Songs like this and “These Final Moments,” however, sound like parties but grasp at feelings of desperation and fatalism, particularly with the latter. “These Final Moments” wrestles with the the narrator’s own inability to empathize with a dying friend and gives the album its most poignant moments.
Paired with the softer moments of the album, Harman is able to imbue a stale genre with elements of lasting impact, be they with enduring and hard-hitting sentiments (“These Final Moments”) or by incorporating elements of crooner-rock (the aforementioned “Mike’s Dust” and “Lickety Split”). The band take micro-measures to keep pushing themselves forward and in doing so serve to make a rousing argument for the continuation of a genre that has never been big on stakes or statements. Stakes and grand statements aside, The Cowboys have made an eclectic and endearing garage rock album that nudges both themselves and the genre into territory not quite revelatory, but exciting nonetheless.