Friday, November 1, 2013

Cassette Review: Cousins-Bathhouse

Cousins’ begin their debut album with their version of the “sprawl song”. The “sprawl song” as I’ve dubbed it, is one of the best tricks in indie rock, where a band will form a whole song around a repeated 10 second loop of noisy yet steady music and have the vocals mixed just right so that they rise over everything else but right at the cusp. At key moments there will be a burst of energy, usually in the form of a distortion pedal being turned on, but the song should hold steady for its entire length. Pulled off just right (see Stereolab’s “French Disko” or Weekend’s more recent “Sirens”), it allows for chaotic energy and tension to coexist within the same song seamlessly, and feels like it go on forever even though it always knows the right point to stop at. That’s how Cousins open up Bathhouse, with the knotty and oh so excellent “Abdicator”, six and half minutes of angular post-punk catharsis buried under layers and layers of shoegaze distortion and baritone vocals that borderline at drone. And while by all means these subgenres should cancel each other out, “Abdicator” never halts for a moment, always using the other genre’s energy to lift up the others. It is an incredibly impressive feat for an opening track.

It also serves to set the stage completely for everything else in Bathhouse. Cousins craft this dark and longing filled version of indie rock, pumped filled with creative distortion, topped with post-punk frosting and ‘90s emo flakes. The formula is never stable; with the band forever adding and subtracting these subgrenes for their songs for variation. “Brother’s Books (To My Beloved Little Sister)” cranks up the disjointed post-punk riffs and bursts of noise so that it feels like a bit like a burry version of Sonic Youth’s “Candle”. “Drone” on the other hand lives up to its name, descending deeper and deeper into a bottomless well of dreary, cascading instruments that would make Whirr proud.

In fact what Whirr did on Pipe Dreams, when they were a shoegaze band trying tooth and nail to be Dinosaur Jr., is a great reference point for what Cousins are doing here, though the reverse. The results are clearest in the likes of “Xuxa”, one of Bathhouse’s best tracks, where the band couldn’t decide on either concentrating on the shoegaze or post-punk guitars and did both at once, the results being frantic upon frantic bursts of gooey guitar riffs that chime and sludge at the same time. At this point, J. Wyatt’s vocals need to be talked about as they are the connective tissue of all these tracks; his longing, monotonic, baritone forever hanging over all these tracks, not matter how unhinged or engulfed the songs get. It’s a little bit of a shame that his vocals are buried so deep in the songs. They wouldn’t work any other way, but it doesn’t allow the lyrics to shine like they should; bleak and sad prose that usually call out for an end or just giving up, and repeated more than once over the course of a song. The cynicism that runs through the songs is as heavy the cold and snowy landscape that probably informed them.

It all comes to a head on Bathhouse’s last track “Maustrap/Mono No Aware”, a 15+ minute monster that serves as the albums most lush track, its purest take on shoegaze, and yet under cuts it all by the noisy, clattering coda lashed onto the end that compresses the rest of the album’s sounds into a three minute space. But to a certain degree that makes sense because there is nothing on Bathhouse that is completely straightforward or even remotely cool. Cousins could end Bathhouse on that coda because they could and they did. Bathhouse is uncompromising, sprawling, everywhere, sad, angry, brittle, cold, and lonely. It is some of the best indie rock I’ve heard all year.


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Buy Bathhouse here, from Bridgetown Records

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