WASHINGTON, September 11, 2012 –Most music seems to get viewed through the prism of indie rock these days. Yet most bands today don’t specifically gravitate towards a defined genre as was true in previous pop music eras. Instead, they end up being described as indie rock with a twist of something else. This, unimaginatively, is actually the best way to describe Cowgill and their recent Monday night show at the Velvet lounge.
This is not to say that Cowgill is unimaginative or uninteresting in any way. It’s quite the opposite, actually. The band throws so many things up against the wall – and successfully at that – they escape any sort hand-waving dismissal that jaded critics might want to dispense.
Cowgill doesn’t really defy classification though, as it’s fairly easy to point what they’re doing or attempting in each of their songs. That becomes even more prominent when they make use of their influences and pull things together. What actually makes Cowgill interesting is how they bring these divergent sounds together during their set.
Cowgill hails from Boston, which gives us a clue about their eclectic tastes and why they don’t necessarily settle on a basic sound. Bands from cities with large metropolitan areas have a tendency to incorporate a lot of influences into their sound, especially when they come up from the indie rock circuit. So while Paul Cowgill might be recognized as the focal point of the band, the other aspects of the band end up drawing just as much attention.
Ostensibly, the band is labeled as an indie folk rock band, and that’s certainly justifiable given Cowgill’s instrumental and vocal stylings, which come out in full force on their recorded material. There’s definitely a James Taylor-like vibe to the way Paul Cowgill plays, which gives the band a lighthearted and easygoing foundation from which to build.
Still, during their live set, the band takes on a slightly different angle than the normal folk fare we’re used to seeing and hearing. The multiple dimensions of this band come out in full force during their live performance.
For example, one of the more intriguing aspects of the band’s whole musical attack is the use of Leeann Hackett’s violin playing and Dan Weissman’s use of the mandolin. The use of both instruments has been becoming more prominent within indie rock circles, but usually not in this context. During their set, Hackett and Weissman give this band a definite bluegrass sound that seems to come straight out of southern Virginia or the Kentucky or West Virginia hills.
Weissman helps on the other side of spectrum too by contributing to the band’s horn section along with keyboardist Mike Truskowski. They play the trumpet and trombone respectively, which is slightly reminiscent of the way Cake would handle their own impromptu horn section. While this variable instrumentation is not a major factor during their set the way the violin and mandolin are for Cowgill. But for both bands, it’s effective how the instruments are brought in at the right time to punctuate various songs and change the mood, making the music all the more memorable when they do.
When Cowgill got around to the two covers they performed – Radiohead and the Beach Boys – it put something a thematic capstone on their set. Neither of those bands are out of the ordinary for Cowgill to cover, since they’re just the right age to love Radiohead, and since Brian Wilson’s influence is all over Paul Cowgill’s style of playing as well as his lyrics. Yet this also speaks to Cowgill’s aspirations to achieve a genuine pop music complexity.
Often, it’s important for band to do serviceable work by simply pulling out a bunch of instruments, going through the motions, and calling it a day. But, while being eclectic is nice, it doesn’t mean anything if musical structure isn’t taken into account. To its everlasting credit, Cowgill spends a great deal of effort incorporating their various parts into a coherent whole, making for the kind of show that makes a distinctly above average impression.
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