Haven't Slept All Year
[Scat; 2008] Rating: 7.0
For a band of middle-aged Cleveland art-punk misfits born of record-collector rock tradition, Cobra Verde have adapted rather well to the new-school indie economy, turning themselves into a TV-licensing machine and landing plum placements on "Entourage" and "The O.C." But if Cobra Verde's eternally youthful swagger belies their almost two-decade pedigree, the story of the band's sixth album provided a sad reminder that you can't be a kid forever-- upon its initial completion in summer of 2007, frontman John Petkovic was forced to care for his cancer-stricken mother, who passed away that December. The album, and the band, were put on ice for over a year-- during which Petkovic through suffered severe, prolonged bouts of insomnia.
So that album title is no exaggeration. But if the songs contained within predate Petkovic's breakdown, they suggest that, even before his familial trauma, the singer was well-accustomed to an after-hours regimen of strip clubs and booze. Cobra Verde's music has always simmered with nocturnal menace and seedy suggestion, but on Haven't Slept All Year, there's a greater awareness of the price for staying up all night: Having to make amends in the morning. The result is an album plays out in a binary sequence of comically over-the-top drunk-rock benders and sincere, open-hearted pleas for forgiveness.
But until the morning comes, Cobra Verde are happy to appeal to the most base-ic of instincts: "Entourage"-approved opener "World Can't Have Her" is essentially a rewrite of AC/DC's "Girls Got Rhythm". But as certified students of rock'n'roll mythology (Petkovic is a journalist by trade; guitarist Frank Vazzano teaches pop-music history at Cleveland State University), Cobra Verde project a keen self-awareness: the Clash-city rocker "Riot in the Food Court" climaxes with a deadpan declaration of "I'm in love with strippers on drugs," while the Replacements-styled nightclub jitters of "Wasted Again" carry the admission that "drinking songs are so typical." The implication is that Cobra Verde aren't playing around with hard-rock conventions merely for populist appeal and easy soundtrack money, but because it's precisely the sort of music that you'd hear blaring in the peeler bars and neon-lit corner dives that Petkovic's protagonists inhabit.
Cobra Verde also realize their "drunken sex addict" anti-heroes are not the sort of people you want to spend an entire album hanging out with-- particularly when they start leaning too heavily on the bar-band swing ("I Could Go to Hell for You"). So for every time Petkovic is called on to play the sleazeball, there's a chance to redeem himself as the sweetheart, and for the band to apply the more expansive approach that marked 2005's Copycat Killers all-covers collection: "Home in the Highrise" colors in its sketch of skyscraper-living sterility with rich Byrdsian harmonies; the turn-a-new-leaf anthems "Something About the Bedroom" and "Run Away" outfit Pavement with skinny ties and keytars. By penultimate acoustic ballad "Can't Believe", Petkovic is seeking forgiveness for all his sins-- á la Lou Reed on the Velvets' "Jesus"-- from a god he doesn't believe in, at which point he's sentenced to an afterlife in the "Haunted Heavens," where he's surrounded by devils and dead lovers, but where-- judging by the pristine jangle-pop presentation-- they're spinning the Flamin' Groovies for all eternity. In light of Petkovic's annus miserablis, that's the kind of hell he can certainly deal with.
- Stuart Berman, February 27, 2009