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Band lets indie rock sound good again

By Ben Rayner, Pop Music Critic
Toronto Star
September 1999

Suddenly in the isolationist land of indie rock, it’s okay to sound and act like an actual rock band again.

Whatever the merits of out-of-tune guitars, mumbled vocals and defiant anti-stardom, the sound that typified a thousand shambling independent bands during the early ’90s is long spent as a creative force.

Willful obscurists and indie standard bearers Pavement upped the songwriting and production ante on their new record, while their label, Matador, now spend much of its time licensing avant-garde (read: willfully obscure) European electronic music. Liz Phair and Guided by Voices crossed into convention and major-label recording contracts. As for relative stalwarts like Sebadoh … well, no one’s listened to one of their records twice since 1990’s Sebadoh III.

Grand statements and ambitious embellishments are no longer the enemy. Scan the shelves at small record store Rotate This these days and you’re more likely to find indie bands referencing ’70s AM-radio glam and New Wave, booking string sections and striking pouty poses.

Emblematic of this stylistic sea change is Cleveland’s glam-struck (but not stricken) Cobra Verde, dropping by the El Mocambo tonight before its smart and stylishly dissolute Nightlife arrives in stores next month on the independent New York label Motel Records.

“I’ve always hated indie rock,” says Verde lead singer and guitarist John Petkovic, an arts columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer by day. “Obviously, I like a lot of records that have been released independently. But indie rock, to me, always suggests wearing your Achilles heels on your sleeve. As an esthetic, I hate indie rock as much as I hate Bill Clinton and for similar reasons. It’s all fuzzy-wuzzy. Too many flaws.

“It kind of undercuts rock music as something to look up to. I always thought rock was something that was supposed to be awe-inspiring. Indie rock has this ‘I understand you and we’re all in this together’ feel, just like Bill Clinton. And I find them both equally distasteful.”

Nightlife draws liberally on a host of rock acts from the past who weren’t afraid to sound elevated. The muscular-yet-artful playing lands somewhere between raw Stooges and pretentious Stranglers, the shrieking sax parts are pure Roxy Music and Petkovic – a frontman not afraid of acting the part (and recently dubbed "“he last rock star” by Magnet magazine – pays acknowledged homage to the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Bryan Ferry with his vocal style.

All this has typecast the well-dressed Cobra Verde as a “glam rock” band. It can’t hurt, given that the sound is presently more fashionable (again) than it was when Verde’s debut, Viva La Muerte, emerged in 1994. And accordingly, pre-release press on Nightlife has been resoundingly positive.

Petkovic takes some issue with the glam tag, but doesn’t deny the era that spawned it is an inspiration.

“I don’t think the record sounds like glam rock, necessarily,” he says. “But glam, I think, was kind of the last moment in rock’n’roll where ideas were being added to the table from all over … You could have metal, doo-wop, a Chuck Berry-type backbeat, anything.

“If you can take two things and put them together in a new context, I’m all for it.”

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