Two Cow Garage – For the record
Record store band. Sure, it’s not an officially recognized category, yet (patent pending), but it comes in awfully handy to describe bands that you could easily imagine killing hours in a record shop. Two Cow Garage is a record store band. Maybe even the record store band, although they’d have to engage in a steel cage match with Grand Champeen and Yo La Tengo for the title.
Just one trip through Two Cow Garage’s third release, the conveniently titled Three, should convince you of their record store bandness — courtesy of its “Jack And Diane” namedrop, its perfectly executed na-na-na’s, its echoes of a half-dozen of your old or new favorite bands, its radio-staticky samples of a couple of their favorite bands. It’s as if guitarist/lead vocalist Micah Schnabel, bassist Shane Sweeney, and drummer/studio multi-instrumentalist Dustin Harigle are such music fans that they had no choice but to become musicians.
“That’s what we do, pretty much, besides play music,” says Schnabel. “We seek it out.” Sweeney offers further confirmation. “Every time [we hit a town], if we have time, the first place we find is a record store, just to go through and find new stuff,” he says. “I guess it’s kind of like, say that you’re an accountant and all you ever get to work with is a calculator, right? But the guy next to you has a computer. You want to use a computer too. You want to have all the tools, and listening to massive amounts of music gives you those tools.”
You could consider it as much refueling as retooling, and the guys don’t appear shy about being driven by discoveries. A case in point is Bruce Springsteen, who, somewhat amazingly, Sweeney just started listening to within the last year. “Of course, when you first hear Born To Run, it’s a life-altering experience,” he testifies.
“Camaro”, the new album’s centerpiece, isn’t really Boss-ish in sound, but it is in tone and collective subconscious. With its county roads and “lights out, radio on” details and, hmmm, a screen door, it’s Springsteen’s epic Jersey nudged just a bit westward to the small-town Ohio of all three members’ youths. It’s also a rock opera in miniature a la “Jungleland”, but instead of a sprawling citywide setting, the action (or lack thereof) takes place mostly in the backseat of the title ride. The streets aren’t on fire; it’s hard enough just to get ’em lit. And most of us have been there.
In light of all that, it’s not surprising that another new band favorite is the Hold Steady, an outfit with Springsteen comparisons in its press kit and tales of high school trials aplenty in its trick bag. And it makes perfect sense when Sweeney comments enthusiastically about the Hold Steady’s “loud rock ‘n’ roll bombast thing” because Two Cow Garage’s muscle-twang continues to be one of alt-country’s most hard rock, if not heavy metal, sounds.
But time, and perhaps research in the album stacks, has led to the band finding additional shadings in their music. The sonically subtler moments on Three turn out to be among the most effective and soul-searching. “The job application’s getting harder to ignore,” sings Schnabel on “No Shame”, with surrender in his scorched-throat voice. But it’d be easy to get caught up in the hooky jangle of the song, which is as hit-worthy as any mid-’90s Goo Goo Dolls tune, and miss the self-questioning at its core.
“They are so true it hurts,” Schnabel says of “No Shame” and its partner in second-guessing, “Should’ve California”. The latter rejects Two Cow Garage’s signature move of breaking a mood with thunder-god guitar and stays quiet; the line “Shouldn’t be wasting all of my time in these basement bars with this rock ‘n’ roll band” hits even harder because of it. Doubt doesn’t get any more direct.
“When you’re not moving forward, it’s like, ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘What have I done?’ You start questioning all that,” Schnabel explains. “And then you write a song like ‘Should’ve California’. Everybody is doing better and doing better things than I am.” When “Camo Jacket” (which taps the same Replacements/Soul Asylum keg) stutter-steps in as “Should’ve California” fades, it offers welcome relief from the tension so expertly built up.
You can see some of that self-examination playing itself out in The Long Way Around, a documentary by John Boston that chronicles the recording process for Two Cow Garage’s second album The Wall Against Our Back; Boston also followed the band around for the first couple weeks after that record’s release, capturing the less-than-glamorous road experience.
“The long drives to play for nobody, and all that stuff — the same old stuff we’ve heard a million times before, but it’s true. And this just puts it right there in your face,” Schnabel says in describing the film. “It shows everything that goes into the little bit that people get to see, those two hours at the bar.” And maybe a couple hours at the local record store.