In Rock School, John Petkovic -- the Cleveland-based radio host, newspaper columnist, Internet cavalier, and singer/guitarist/all-around mastermind of Cobra Verde -- missed the lecture on how rock stars are supposed to be listless layabouts who can barely get out of bed, much less produce quality work. In fact, judging by Nightlife, the one-time aide to Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia missed that entire semester. As a songwriter, Petkovic is smart as a whip, and although Cobra Verde will most probably be best remembered for backing up Robert Pollard on Guided by Voices' mediocre 1997 album Mag Earwhig!, Nightlife contains enough rollicking, glam-inspired tuneage to make Petkovic's former employer and fellow Ohioan weep with envy.
Opening with the stomp of "One Step Away From Myself," Petkovic sings, "I'm always getting closer to you/ But I'm one step away from myself," sounding not unlike an extra-frantic Brian Ferry circa 1972. In fact, much of Nightlife recalls Stranded-era Roxy Music, when Ferry was more concerned with scoring than seducing, and the band flexed the muscle it lost in later years. "Crashing in a Plane" -- complete with slashing chords, sax bleats, and Petkovic's affected vocals -- threatens to out-Roxy even its progenitor.
The remainder of Nightlife plays like a history of the last two decades of theatrical rock, with references to everyone from Bowie to the Damned to Nick Cave to Joy Division (the eerie "Tourist"). There's a certain schizophrenia to the album; it's as if Petkovic, unable to decide which hero to channel, decided to tackle as many as he could handle in one sitting. "Casino" sounds like the Damned jamming with Spinal Tap, yet never comes off as jokey, while "Heaven in the Gutter," with its start-stop chording and frenetic drum fills, is an obvious nod to the Who. However, even amid the mayhem, there are two outright anomalies: "What Makes a Man a Man" is New Orleans riverboat jazz topped with Petkovic's excellent croon, while the closing "Pontius Pilate" is Hebrew folk.
Such all-out embracing of previous styles -- especially '70s glam -- has been the death of more than one well-meaning musician. Yet what allows Cobra Verde to pull off Nightlife without sounding overly fawning is the band's own force of personality. While it's true that they're traveling down a road paved with the sweat, glitter, and sequins of others, Petkovic and his bandmates have their own agenda -- and on Nightlife they have the confidence and talent to assert it.
-- Tim Scanlin
The Beta Band
The Beta Band
Now that any invocation of the name Brian Wilson is interpreted as a synonym for "reckless ambition," everybody gets to be a genius. Underground pop bands -- from Of Montreal to Neutral Milk Hotel to Olivia Tremor Control to Ladybug Transistor -- present themselves as symphonic auteurs, but they've become straitjacketed into formula: clattering percussion, harmonies with little adherence to melodies, and a recording ethos dictating that whatever's lying around be tried as instrumentation. Late Night With Conan O'Brien used to feature a character named Dippy the Hippy, who could make a bong out of any three household objects; should he ever consider a career in music, the Elephant 6 label will surely have a contract ready.
Not that the junkyard aesthetic is all bad; even if frontman Jeff Magnum's proclamations are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals, Neutral Milk Hotel's brilliant In the Airplane, Over the Sea got by on sheer songcraft, and the fact that whatever the hell Magnum was singing, he at least sounded like he meant it. So far, the concept has been mostly limited to the U.S. But it was only a matter of time before Britannia dove in. So enter the Beta Band, a quartet of Scots (now living in England) who went looking for Tin Pan Alley and got infatuated with its dumpster. Using any number of instruments and samples, and a wink at pop history, they fiddle with tradition. Emphasis on the fiddling: Stephen Mason (guitar/vocals), Richard Greentree (bass), Robin Jones (drums), and John McLean (samples) don't so much make music as they do haystacks of sound.
The Beta Band is a vast improvement over the group's earlier, formless works (released in January as The Three E.P.'s), which means they've embraced the concept of song structure, though not any well-reasoned execution. Kiddie rap merged with "Mr. Sandman" ("The Beta Band Rap"), limp folk-pop ("Round the Bend"), and diluted electro-funk ("The Hard One") are all part of the group's attack, though mainly it settles into a sort of homespun interstellar overdrive, complete with inscrutable lyrics that wind up goofing on, of all things, Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
The worst part is that this sort of pop-but-not-pop approach produces about three too many songs that stretch past the five-minute point and are no better for the extension. Kudos for Astralwerks for nixing the group's idea of releasing the Beta Band's debut as a double album -- reckless ambition gets too much credit in the pop marketplace as it is.
-- Mark Athitakis