Under the covers

Sure, they’ve long been the city’s hippest cover band, but the Detroit Cobras might be the city’s hippest band, period

May 2, 2007 at 12:00 am

Of all the nonsense that shadowed Detroit bands five years ago — all the sightings of Seymour Stein in the back of the Lager House, A&R lunches and big-time dreams — the thing that seems most preposterous these days is how the music was unrelentingly tied to Detroit's failure as a city. With no shortage of purple prose, stories about Motown's second coming shared an identical subtext: Bands of the "ruined empire" (Mojo) not only enabled, but also informed the "down and dirty style" (Seventeen) of music that made the "abandoned city" (Spin), depending on your subscription, either "the new Seattle" (Entertainment Weekly) or "the American Liverpool" (Rolling Stone). It was as if you could take any old shaggy-headed kid and drop him at the corner of Cass Avenue and Henry Street and have a platter of bona-fide postindustrial artistry.

Though the Detroit Cobras should be cited as fundamental progenitors of that resurgence, they should suffer no blame for the overcooked mess of its exaggeration. As the machine chewed up the White Stripes and spit out the Von Bondies, the Cobras got only a cursory scratch. The hippest cover band in town continued to do what they always had, exist as M-80s for the downtown-and-proud record collector.

And yet, when you listen to Tied & True, the question isn't how well the Detroit Cobras have weathered the deflated hype — they have weathered it with bad-as-fuck gracefulness — it's about how their limited formulas could possibly remain interesting.

That the band pulls it off is a credit to it's two most visible (not to mention only constant) members, vocalist Rachel Nagy and guitarist Mary Restrepo. The strength of their partnership takes all of three seconds to flaunt itself on the opening track, a Bob Elgin stomp called "As Long As I Have You." After Nagy's vocal comes on like a humid seduction, it's a collars-up strut of big guitar and gang backups. Even when the tune hits its stride, the band's restraint allows Nagy to remain the center of attention. The LP's slow burners, like "Try Love" and "The Hurt Is All Gone," are highlights simply because nothing gets in the way of her brilliant, perilously sexy delivery.

So what if no one in the band wrote them? The Cobra's most charming quality has long been curatorial, bringing life to songs that are worth it. It's still interesting because these days they play those songs with a level of sophistication that matches the admirable selection. With Memphis' guitarist and songwriter Greg Cartwright (who, as the guitarist of the Oblivians, has as much to do influence on the American Liverpool as anyone) and drummer Kenny Tudrick, who doesn't bash as much as strut, they'll occasionally groove harder than the source material.

That's certainly the case with "Only to Other People," a Brill Building toss-off originally recorded by the Cookies. Where the tune is hardly stands out on One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost & Found (though we're fairly certain that the comp wasn't where the band heard it first), the Cobras' version is deftly arranged and slightly faster, giving vibrancy to the pining hook, and making it hit you where it hurts.

With the smarts it takes to do that, the Detroit Cobras prove that they understand something that was lost on revival acts with a shorter shelf life: After dusting off the primary colors of these great songs, they don't seem ruined at all. In fact, they seem vibrant.

Nate Cavalieri writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].