It is possible, if you don't pay attention, to mistake Cobra Verde for a big, straightforward rock band, the kind that sells out stadiums and that, some day, may finance their retirement with a beer commercial or two. The Cleveland-based four piece (with occasional additions) has a big, unambiguous sound, built on thunderous riffs and liquid flights of guitar; if you grew up on Cheap Trick, The Who, Sweet, et cetera, it will make you think, "thank god, finally, I'm home". However, it is critical, if you want to think of Cobra Verde as a simple rock band, not to listen too hard, because the 11 songs on Easy Listening
are about as subversive as they come. They are the kinds of songs that make you expect one thing and experience another. They are a vertiginous rush into contradictions, and if you like smart, complicated rock and roll that nevertheless puts on a show, they are as good as it gets.
Cobra Verde has been around since the early 1990s, drawing members, including its frontman John Petkovic, from Death of Samantha, and first achieved notoriety when GBV's Robert Pollard asked them to be his backing band for Mag Earwhig!. The line-up here is roughly the same as on Nightlife, and includes Petkovic, Frank Vazzano on guitars, Ed Sotelo on bass and Mark Klein on drums. "Associate member" J. Mascis plays on several tracks (he reportedly wrote the guitar line for "Modified Frankenstein") and Lisa Kekaula of the BellRays sings backing vocals.
Easy Listening is rife with shifting identities, masks and pretenses. No one is exactly who he seems, and everything you hear seems to have a whiff of self-contradictory subtext. "Modified Frankenstein", with its monster guitar line and chugging rhythm, is a great rock song -- one that would still be unbelievable if it were about cars or taking drugs. The fact is, it's not; tucked between the blistering guitar solos, there are some great lines about existential angst. "I know you think I'm not for you / but I'm too unreal to be untrue / I'm your walking talking forgery / made out of machinery / I love you / I love you / but I know you're somebody else." It's like Kafka in 4/4. Petkovic takes his role-playing to extremes in the hard-rocking "Terrorist", putting the voice of a suicide bomber over an earth-shaking groove and, I think, drawing some parallels to male/female relations.
There's a disconnect between music and subject matter on several of the songs, which at first passes unnoticed, then jars, then adds interesting tension and ambiguity. Opener "Riot Industry", for instance, with its killer five-note riff, fake applause and soaring chorus, sounds like a classic "let's get crazy" rock and roll song, an updated "Wild in the Streets". Still, listen a little more closely and the track takes aim at mass communication, maybe mass marketing, a "riot industry" that urges people to "take what you want / everything is free", and at the same time robs everything of value. The song does all this obliquely, never interfering with the dense, head-sticking hook at the song's heart.
The disc's oddest, but perhaps most interesting cut is "Don't Worry (The Law's Gonna Break You)", a slack-rhythmed acoustic ballad with whispered ooh-wah choruses and a dreamy saxophone solo. It sounds like one of those "I'll be true to you forever" songs -- but that, of course, would be too simple. Cobra Verde turns the whole genre on its head with lyrics like "When hopes are high / I'll bring them down for you / don't worry baby / when everyone's untrue / I'll take your place and make up lies for you."
All of this occurs against a backdrop of truly excellent music, from all-out garage rockers like "Modified Frankenstein" and "Terrorist" to creepy-beautiful ballads like "Speed of Dreams" and "To Your Pretty Face". Throughout the album, the band mixes a hodge-podge of punk and glam and rock in an utterly joyful rock and roll party blend. The bottom line is that lots of people can write ambiguous lyrics, and a few bands can cook up great rock songs, but very few can put them together as well as Cobra Verde.