THE DETROIT COBRAS: “Baby” (ROUGH TRADE RTRADCD 193)
For those who still haven’t received the memo, The Detroit Cobras really are from Detroit and they revolve around vocalist Rachel Nagy and guitarist Maribel Restrepo. Their modus operandi is to re-work long forgotten soul and r’n’b songs from the late 50s and early 60s, paying particular tribute to such great performers as Irma Thomas and Etta James. The way they tell it, there are too many songs in the world already, and a lot of good ones have fallen by the wayside. What makes them special is their attention to detail, and the fact that Rachel Nagy can really sing.
But the Cobras will insist on living and breathing the classic rock’n’roll lifestyle, and this can result in a few, uh, LOGISTICAL problems. Like they’re not exactly prolific: this is only their third album in seven years, and, like the first two, it’s all over in less than 32 minutes. Nevertheless, when they hit the spot they truly hit it, and your heart and feet tell you that they really are the best (the only? the last?) rock’n’roll band in the world and that the wait has been worth it. Here, they do it just right on Billie Jean Horton’s “Can’t Please You” - which has a groove and a riff and a vocal straight from God (or the Devil, depending on your point of view). It’s completely impossible to keep still while it’s playing and when it’s finished you have to play it again. That one occupied me exclusively for some time but eventually I noticed that “Now You’re Gone” has a minor key groove not given a proper airing for about forty years, since the days of The Beatles “Not A Second Time”, or The Searchers attempts at Jackie DeShannon songs. Drummer Kenny Tudrick updates the twist rhythm like some mythological craftsman and Rachel Nagy’s vocals have never sounded better. Elsewhere, “Slipping Around” is a cool opener, with some nice East Coast harmonies, and “I Wanna Holler (But The Town’s Too Small)” is a bit of an epic in the swamp rock mode. An odd choice is Bert Russell’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” – at first I hoped it would be the Professor Longhair tune but it’s the same one that The Animals did and that Bob Dylan stole for “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”. It shows off the Cobras increasingly confident backing vocals, and the grain of Rachel’s voice on the intro is sublime. Steve Cropper’s “Weak Spot” is indeed a weak spot, and the original “Hot Dog” is fun but hardly exceptional. “Everybody’s Going Wild” sounds like an out-take from “Life, Love and Leaving” (second album) but that’s OK, especially the yodeling… Allen Toussaint’s “Mean Man” is more ambitious with it’s New Orleans funk lurch and 60s pop chords in the bridge – the Cobras sound like they don’t quite know what to make of such dangerous revisionism, but Rachel holds it together and it ends up being one of the stand-out tracks. Naomi Neville’s “It’s Raining” is this album’s ballad, and only a heart of stone could remain unmoved. Maybe one day the Cobras will do a whole album of ballads like this and we will never again have to worry about what to play when we’re maudlin drunk and alone at 3am.
What else? “The Real Thing” rocks like a mother, Bobby Womack’s “Baby Help Me” is a good example of how the Cobras serve up classic soul, but by their standards it’s a filler. Over here in the UK, “Cha Cha Twist” – the monster opener of the first album – was used recently in a Coke Cola ad, so the Cobras have tried to capitalize on this by re-recording it and putting out the new version as a single. It’s nice but they needn’t have bothered: it’s bigger but no better than the old version.
Production (by the band) and engineering is spot-on. Sounds marginally better than the first two but they sounded just fine to me, so this is just more of the same with a slightly higher quality of fairy dust sprinkled over. The playing is impeccable throughout and Rachel’s vocals sound superb. Any suggestions that she was losing it are hereby completely rescinded. There really is no-one else in her league currently functioning. If you like real rock’n’roll then this is far and away the year’s most essential purchase, if you don’t, well, I’m sorry I can’t help you. Word to the wise: Play track 10 (“Can’t Please You”) first. Loud. Ask yourself: When did you last hear a better slice of the real stuff? Ain’t cha glad this stuff exists? As for me, I’m gettin’ down on my knees right now…