Review Summary: If only the band's songwriting ability matched its enthusiasm.
Cunning Stunts has the sonic qualities of noise rock — the distortion, production quality, and studio add-ons — but little of the musical experimentation that the rest of the genre has to offer.
The songs range from laughably bad to skippable to pretty good. Let's start with the former category. "Mr. Cancelled," with its butt-rock blues riff, should have been cancelled from the album. "The Woman Inside" has an unexciting riff in stepwise motion, and the song can't be salvaged by vocals sung in French. "Down Below" is as simple and dull as "Three Blind Mice."
When Cows compose a decent riff, they tend to ruin it by repeating it over and over or confining it to a verse-chorus structure. The sludgy riff on "Ort" is repeated for 4:22 straight. There's a nice descending guitar line on "Midnight Cowboy," accompanied by sturdy if predictable harmonies, but once you've heard the first 45 seconds, you've basically heard the whole song.
The better the riffs, the longer you can tolerate them. The chromatic riff on "Heave Ho" doesn't wear out its welcome, and neither do the toe-tapping blues licks on "Walks Alone."
Finally, Cows manage to put it all together on two standout songs. "Contamination" contrasts a dramatic, waltz-time interlude with a speedy main section in common time. The bass doubles the vocals on "Terrifique" while the guitar squawks out a solid riff on top. It's a unique arrangement.
The mix tries to mask the inconsistent performance and songcraft. The guitar distortion obscures many licks and fills that might have been poorly played or half baked. And in the second half of the album, the record starts and stops for a few beats in places. I assume that's an attempt to keep the listener alert and engaged, which the music often fails to do.
Cows play with a lot of enthusiasm, and the songs are in a variety of keys, earning them a half-point bonus.