Review Summary: The Cobras offer up a new set of 13 covers, most of which are good, but all of which suggest their peak has passed.
The problem with covers bands is that, after a while, you start to lose any real sense of forward motion and momentum, eventually settling into a routine that can cripple you as an artistic force, even if you are still churning out quality material. Even, in fact, if you're the Best Covers Band In The World. That's exactly the case here; five albums in, The Detroit Cobras (the aforementioned Best Covers Band In The World) have come out with a solid album that contains a few fantastic songs, but it feels like we've been here, done that - despite the quality of this album, it still feels like there's not much life in this venture.
That's a shame, because The Detroit Cobras were, for a while, so vibrant, so appealing, so sexy, and they sounded so vital. Their debut, Mink, Rat, or Rabbit
was a shaky affair that saw the band clawing for a sound to call their own, but the follow-up, Life, Love, & Leaving
, was a real stunner. They'd hit on something that felt real, and that worked every bit as well on a conceptual level as it did a musical one - re-tooling standards and hidden gems from the '50s and '60s, taking songs written by artists that have (mostly) completely disappeared into time and making them sound like they'd been written in the post-punk era, performing them with the same passion and attitude as the revolution of '77 regardless of the - it just WORKED. All the while, there was the subtle hint that they were proving a point or two - good music is good music no matter where or when or how you hear it, music moves in circles, and anybody who thinks 'punk' was something completely new in the 70s was kidding themselves. It helped that Rachel Nagy, the band's lead singer, has a distinctive, sleazy voice that you could favourably compare to any great rock & roll singer of the past.
For those of us who count ourselves as established Cobras fans, there's a few touches here and there that offer new thrills within their now-standardized soulful garage rock sound. The addition of a piano on Dori Grayson's tender "Try Love" and Irma Thomas' "The Hurt's All Gone" is a slight shock to the system, and Betty Lavett's "You'll Never Change", Garnett Mimms' "As Long As I Have You", and Gino Washington's "Puppet On A String" explore territory that's noticably darker than anything the band's attempted before. But really, that's it. The highlights are "Nothing But A Heartache", originally by The Flirtations, and Art Neville's "(I Wanna Know) What's Going On", the latter of which would slot onto a 'Best of The Detroit Cobras' compilation easily - it's as good as anything they've done in the past.
But elsewhere, there are mis-steps. "(If You Don't Think) You Better Change", written by Tammy Montgomery, sounds way too sloppy until it hits the chorus, ruining what could have been a good cover. "Green Light", by The Equals, meanwhile, is just a really crappy song - a standard 12-bar blues with a boring melody and trite lyrics, it makes you wonder why it's even here. "Only To Other People" is plain boring. The major mis-step, though, is that no other song here can compete with the peaks the Cobras have reached in the past. The fatal blow for this record is that, while there's nothing much wrong with it as a stand-alone album, this has all been done before, and done much better, on at least one previous Detroit Cobras album. Once you've got that, what's the point in listening to the bulk of this? I can tell you right now, in complete honesty, that there's a good chance I will never actively listen to most of these songs again, because when I want my Cobras fix, I'll just make a mixtape that includes the best songs here and forgoes the rest.
In reality, I'd love to take a new Detroit Cobras album and say 'Yeah, check this out, because no other band in the world has this much mass appeal, without sacrificing musical talent or sheer attitude - and they rock harder than whatever the hell you're already listening to'. And if I'd been reviewing them back in 2001, I'd have done exactly that. But by now, I can't in good conscience make that claim, because I know they can be so much more than this, and that's a sad state of affairs. Do yourself a favour - go out and get Life, Love, & Leaving
. Listen to it, love it, then get this. Acknowledge that this is a good album, and in all likelihood, it's as good as The Detroit Cobras will ever get from this point onwards, if they continue on this path - then hope, like I am hoping, that this fantastic band, and this fantastic singer, finds some fresh impetus from somewhere, because those vaults of forgotten hits are running dry.
This is an easy album to enjoy and appreciate, and the fact remains that The Detroit Cobras are a great band, but the only way you could ever truly love this is if it's the first time you've heard this band. And if that's the case, I guess I envy you - both because you've got further delights awaiting you when you check out the rest of their catalogue, and because you'll be able to enjoy what is ultimately a very good album without the slight sense of depression I'm feeling right now. Depression because, from this point on, all I can envisage is The Detroit Cobras releasing the same album over and over again with ever diminishing returns, only stumbling upon a truly great song maybe twice an album. Tied and True
feels like a placeholder, something a little disposable, and it's hard to see how they'll get out of the rut they've ended up in.