Click…click…POW! Cougars' second full-length, Pillow Talk has begun. “Toxic Fox Syndrome,” a track that had been previewed on their myspace page, starts things off with a sludgy beat held together by Brian Wnukowski’s booming drums and Bryan Bienias’s fuzzy bass. The ‘guitar horse’ and ‘guitar force’ of Brett Meingaser and John McClurg, respectively of course, soon turn things up about a dozen notches, and Sam Ambrosini’s ‘synthdespizer’ snarls and spits into the fray. Jeff Vidmont and Mark Beening add just a hint of melody with their biting sax and trumpet licks, and who could forget Matthew Irie? Irie’s throaty howl unleashes some strangely captivating lyrics: something about a “knuckle licker,” a “lazy burglar,” and warnings like “that’s lady’s a cop!” You’ll shout along even though you have no idea what he is talking about.
If it seems that I’m a fan, you’d be right. I really can’t fake otherwise, and I will continue my quest to tell the world about them. Chicago’s Cougars have been on the scene for a few years now, releasing the full-length Nice, Nice on Go Kart in 2003 and the Manhandler EP on Thick in 2004. As my recent interview with Irie and Bienias mentioned, this newest effort has brought them out of their own studio into Electrical Audio, studio of the legendary Steve Albini, of bands such as Big Black and Shellac but who is probably more know for engineering classic abrasive rock records like Surfer Rosa and In Utero and many more including bands like the Jesus Lizard, Jawbreaker, Superchunk, Low and Slint. The result of this pairing is a solid and menacing production to match that of this eight-man onslaught of sound that is Cougars.
Next up is “Scissitar!,” which grabs you especially in its breakdown, where Wnukowski rocks the cowbell hard in a 2-against-3 rhythm with bass against buzzing synth octaves, all with Irie yelling “She likes to take control! She likes to dance!” “Who’s Got the Sniff” also revels in its bridge when everyone takes a rhythmic role, drums plowing along as all the guitars ‘chuck-chucka-chuck’ with heavy muting. Then the guitars start to ring out chords as Irie asks the title’s question. Plus, we’ve got more very quote-able lyrics like “I hear she’s long in the torso” and “She’s got it nice in the pants.” Where he comes up with this shit I don’t know, but I love it. I could continue on in this fashion and tell you what’s great about every track, but I think you should just trust me on this one. Let’s move on.
The album all leads up to the instant classic “Shitstorm” at track 8. Thus far, the songs have all been fairly up-tempo and hard. “Shitstorm” on the other hand, staggers between a slow groove and even slower shuffle, with sustained chords through most of it rather than the jack-hammering that preceded it. The mid-section of this 7-minute song brings things down softer than the Cougars have ever gone before, with Irie as close to what you could call ‘singing’ as ever. As the band alternates between spaced out subdued and explosive chords, the smooth voice of guest Dodie Morris joins, an unexpected move from such an aggressive band. She intertwines with Irie as the band build and returns to the original tempo and crashes to a close.
Also of note is nearly ten-minute closer “Delicate Whispers Is in Cahoots with Pillow Talk,” which starts off like any other solid Cougars tune with a weaving synth line, dissonant horn blasts, and crunchy guitars under Irie’s yelling, but somewhere after the 5-minute mark they careen over the top into a wall of clashing intervals. Bienas’ bass remains on one pitch chugging along for the remainder of the song as the guitars crash overhead in chopping dissonant chords all while Wnukowski goes wild with several smashing beats which eventually plod to the end. It’s very minimalistic and abrasive -- some may find it annoying even, but if you like the Cougars in the first place, you should have no problem handling it.
My one minor beef with Pillow Talk would be that the keys don’t get their time to shine. I’m not sure if this is a mixing issue or the hollow synth sounds Ambosini chose for the most part on these songs. This issue is not really a detriment to the album as a whole, however.
Cougars have nailed down their sound on Pillow Talk, with their normally unrelenting rock letting up just slightly on occasion to give some dynamic variation to the album. The longer songs show some growth in song development without overdoing it, and the Albini / Greg Norman production lets the band do their thing and strengthens their already vicious brand of rock and roll. Although there is a long way to go yet, this will be a definite contender for my album of the year. GRRRRR!