Cowards (motto: We are Mighty; We are Uncompromising; We are Cowards) is a product of the tough Coronation Street-like backstreets of Salford (Manchester). It is also a component of the swirl of musical activity around the Blueprint recording studios and the within-spitting-distance Eagle Inn, a hip local venue and musical cluster; a base/meeting place for several others bands including Tigerside, The G.O.D., and numerous solo artists and poets, not to mention regular visits from Elbow. Indeed the pub’s landlady herself is a multiple band member.
Forming out of both assorted previous and existing incarnations the evolution of the five-piece has been protracted and determined by an admirable desire to complete a full album before exposing itself publicly (with the exception of a ‘testing the waters’ [or cutting their teeth?] gig last July). Also, to see a creative process through to the bitter end, whatever the cost, and with begged and borrowed equipment where needs be.
The album opens with three songs that can best be described as experimental – ‘The Cut’, ’Polar Bear’ – with its ‘Spirit-in-the-Sky’ style riff – and ‘Chosen’. Essentially synth and drums-led with multiple voices, the first two are danceable while featuring only semi-formed and not particularly memorable melodies. ‘Chosen’ (subtitled The Great I Am) is an interesting piece, a sort of murder story in reverse for which an intriguing and quite arty video has been produced, with many of the band members taking part in it, and which may well feature in live performances, as it has done previously.
The fourth track, ‘Blackout’, is different; less experimental, a slow builder with more guitar, strong harmonies, and quite atmospheric. Anna Calvi made her breakthrough on Later with Jools Holland in 2011 with a song carrying the same title and it makes an early claim for best track, one that should be a single.
That trend continues with ‘Open Letter’, in which acoustic guitar and multi-layered voices that 10cc would be proud of give way to a complex, satisfying multi-instrumental wall of sound.
Experimentalism returns with ‘Crawler’, in which a thumping bass beat is underscored by what sounds like a rattlesnake supported by Meg Ryan in the café scene in When Harry met Sally. Then ‘Dickens’, which doesn’t reference Charles but exhorts the benefits of Estonian liqueurs, could be the soundtrack to a film starring Vin Diesel, abandoned on a distant planet with only scantily clad ladies for company, poor thing.
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In contrast ‘Fall’ is a slow acoustic number with some nifty brushwork on the drums and welcome brass interludes while ‘Scattered’ concludes business with a rollicking guitar and trumpet driven extravaganza, the latter somewhat reminiscent at times of James’ Andy Diagram.
Throughout, the lyrics are as challenging as the music, as for example, in Open Letter:
“I stood on an axis; surveying cracks in the sky; but all my endeavours are waning; and what we build will die.”
Hopefully, they will be included in the sleeve notes; they certainly merit close scrutiny.
Overall, it’s a difficult album to decipher. The band is to be applauded for sticking to its guns and eschewing compromise. It is cutting-edge in the way that, say, Kiran Leonard’s ‘Grapefruit’ is, even if the end result bears no similarity. Yet there is something of a dichotomy in that while it is the ‘pushing the envelope’ stuff that will probably attract attention, the better tracks are more typical indie rock affairs.
‘Teeth’ will be self-released on 14 April 2017. The formal debut and release gig will take place on 15 April 2017 at Manchester’s Deaf Institute and will likely feature a cover or two. In the teeth-cutting gig in 2016 it was the 1990s dance track ‘I Need a Miracle’ that closed the show. This time out rumours are floating on the band’s FB page that Babybird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ is on the menu.
If true, you could interpret that as meaning that the experimentalism might only be a passing phase and that more mainstream fare may come to predominate in the future. That’s unlikely, but for all the technical excellence Cowards accumulated and applied in making those more challenging songs on Teeth it might be no bad thing.