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The Soft Rock Renegades Solace from the push-pull of trends and styles is momentarily found in the glorious pop genius of Susan Cowsill, Pernice Brothers and the Drams.

The Soft Rock Renegades

Solace from the push-pull of trends and styles is momentarily found in the glorious pop genius of Susan Cowsill, Pernice Brothers and the Drams.

by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor
first published: December, 2006

approximate reading time: minutes

The jaded snob in me wants to chalk this up as a guilty pleasure, but the realist that sees the unhip, evolved person in the mirror refuses to feel guilt in pleasure, resolute as an Oprah guest.

Our lives are so numb to sensation and omnipresent availability of experience that we have now created for ourselves the ability to, in a few keystrokes, see pictures of Japanese girls playing with excrement, followed by the shoe's Nancy Reagan wore to the her first inauguration ceremony. And I'm for it. Raw availability of everything may be the only thing that is going to save us since we have greater difficulty giving a fuck about anything with each passing nanosecond. But where our lives becomes sharper, more exposed, the system must right itself with the warm delicate veneer of song. I've said it many times before - I get caught up in the chase after the sharper edge, the weirder sub-node of the grid that I can lose sight of the fact that it was soft comfort of great songs that brought me here to begin with.

Susan Cowsill
Just Believe It
(Susan Cowsill)

Former child star Susan Cowsill is one of those that perpetually draws me back into the fold of song. She's best known for being the freckled kid sister of The Cowsills, singing family sensation of the 60's and model for The Partridge Family. This part of her story is actually nothing more than good copy at this point, because for me, she became truly important in 1999 when she and then husband (and ex-dB, future REM semi-member) Peter Holsapple released Vermillion under the semi-supergroup umbrella of the Continental Drifters. This album is one still shakes me out of my tree when I throw it on, so searching and longing her voice. It is like Lucinda Williams without the drama, holding onto her sadness and confusion, pure as waking up naked. Really, go get it, it's a triumphant album, as life affirming and ultimately necessary to your continuation as a warm blooded mammal as Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

The Drifters drifted along the currents for years after through lineups and divorce, becoming somewhat awkward, like those Sonny and Cher episodes after Cher started publicly acknowledging she was fucking Greg Allman. I thought maybe she had only the one match to light up the darkness and was thankful for it until I saw her name on the marquee at my neighborhood watering hole. I was tangentially aware she was kicking around New Orleans, playing the errant bar gig much in the same circuit that The Alarm's Mike Peters did. I liked The Alarm when I was 16, we were very right for each other then, but I feared a face to face meeting unmediated by nostalgia might not do either of us well, so I never checked him, or her out. But down the street, my curiosity got the best of me.

Her show was the same soft open wound that persists on her album Just Believe It. Her voice is just as pointed as it was on vermillion, all honey laced with a tinge of minor key bitterness. It's lush without being overblown, gushing just short of the cringe point. The record is split up with "Wawona Morning" through a "Wawona Night" interludes, but it is in the full-on pop songs that her power is unleashed. "Talkin'" on the surface seems like that kind of Sheryl Crow mock-empowerment that will send the average housewife to do another mile on the treadmill, but the repeated chorus of "You're talkin' shit around town" is so honest and refreshing, I almost want to get on a treadmill and make it burn. That same pop perfection permeates "Palm of my Hand." There is not a thing architecturally challenging whatsoever about Susan Cowsill. These songs would all work in a Sandra Bullock movie but somehow simultaneously transcend it. The jaded snob in me wants to chalk this up as a guilty pleasure, but the realist that sees the unhip, evolved person in the mirror refuses to feel guilt in pleasure, resolute as an Oprah guest.

The Drams
Jubilee Drive
(New West)

And then the only thing sweetens the pot is humor. I forget how dry things are until I hear some music that actually dares to be funny. Slobberbone was one of those bands. Alt-country, I loved it, love it still actually but goddamn it is populated by some self-absorbed narcissistic unfunny fucks some. I mean, you don't have to get all Hee-Haw on us but shit, the greatest thing about country music is that it's funny. Slobberbone actually rocked its country leanings and was actually funny.

Brent Best emerged from the ashes of Slobberbone after the trailer-fire or whatever moonshine tragedy befell the band with the more orchestrated, more pop-oriented Drams. I feared that yet another strapping field hand had fallen under the spell of Brian Wilson and decided to glorify its sound and let the charm and humor that got my initial attention fall away, but thankfully, best chose to follow the Tom Petty route. The Drams' debut album is bursting at the seams with the warm glow of keyboards and organs, with Chad Stockslager proving to be his Bentmont Tench, his Steve Nieve that fills in the gaps with amber and California sunshine without drowning the record in molasses. The opener "Truth Lies Low" glows like throwing open the drapes in a motel room, bathing everything in light as life rushes in, and while somewhat oblique lines like "the morning tattoo revelry, the email never came" don't have the humor that some of Slobberbone's finest moments possess, it's still funny in context.

Bittersweet sunset car-trip joy permeates the record with classic tracks like "Hummalong" but brilliantly goofy couplets like

There's a pale moon softly shinin'
Through your dinin' room window
Lift your head from where you're lyin'
Softly cryin' "where'd you go"

on the opening to "September High" are like country gold to me. The lines get more heavy-handed as the song goes on, but like those cornball Conway Twitty lyrics that seeped into my consciousness through afternoon TV commercials, they offer up a clever, real look at sadness. Not all is oblique and striated, humor is always laced with pain, and life is laced with both. "Des Moines" is a perfect depiction of the humor and melancholy of being stuck where you are. I've you've ever spent some time in the Midwest, the wry understatement of its tag-line "There is a sadness in Des Moines" is determined to make you smile, that is unless you still live there. If you dig the wit that goes into The Bottle Rockets or Wilco's first record and wonder where it all went, the opening lyrics on "Wonderous Life" will bring it all home for you.

The Pernice Brothers
Live a Little

Joe Pernice has had a long storied career mining this same vein of humor with stoner suburban sadness, stretching back to his first band Scud Mountain Boys and their classic smile-inducing acoustic bummer Massachusetts some ten years ago. Like everybody, he's indiulged his power pop side in his second band The Pernice Brothers, but this time, he;s chosen Squeeze as the model to follow, the melancholy well-crafted urbane Squeeze of "Black Coffee in Bed." Live a Little sounds like a lost classic tape from my bygone college days, found in the glove box. Somerville's chorus

Gonna take a lover
Gonna take her back to Somerville
Don't care if she's pretty
As we leave suck city, yeah!

Or the line in "Automaton"

Something came over me, crimson my clover leaf, think of the humanity!

these, while not being the most profound statements on the human condition, are brilliantly delivered lines, harbored by gentle waved of literate 80's era Brit-pop majesty.

This album is so consistent and effortless; it feels like its all coming in on the same breeze. The culmination comes in on "PCH One" with pianos and acoustic strums streaming by like powerlines outside the car window. It closes perfectly with a slightly updated post-closing time anthem "Grudge Fuck" originally an acoustic paene to the pathos of the 3AM booty call to ex-girlfriends, letting strings and a fuzzed out guitar blow this home movie to Technicolor proportions.

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v
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