Two Cow Garage — Sweet Saint Me. Out October 26, Suburban Home Records.
Two Cow Garage is the best rock band you’ve never heard of.
I’ve been waiting for Sweet Saint Me since last December, before Two Cow even started recording it, when I stood in Tir Na Nog and drank Maker’s Mark and talked to Micah about when they were going in to the studio to start working on their new album. I’ve been waiting for this album for almost a year, and it was absolutely, phenomenally, 100% worth the wait. I have been saving the top spot in my year end best of list for this album since before 2010 even happened, and I was right on the money in doing so.
Two Cow Garage started as a country punk band in Ohio ten years ago, and Sweet Saint Me is their fifth album. Their fourth, the magnificent Speaking In Cursive, was my constant soundtrack when I was commuting to Raleigh last fall, and lead singer Micah Schnabel’s amazing solo album When The Stage Lights Go Dim kept me company driving to work all of last winter. I don’t expect this album to be any different, just filling in another season. Two Cow Garage started a county punk band, but now they’re just flat out one of the best rock and roll bands working today, and this may be their best album yet.
Sweet Saint Me, from the opening chords of “Sally, I’ve Been Shot”, is 42 minutes of pure pop punk shot through with roots rock glory. The rasp of Micah’s cowpunk voice stays the same, but the organ, the layered guitar work, are all an amazing step away from the boxes that people put bands into. There’s country in this album because Micah can’t help but sound like he’s been gargling with whiskey over glass, but there’s pop choruses — heartbreakingly sad pop choruses, rich little boys made sad young men/let’s never make these mistakes again and and Lydia, you’re much too young/to have your teeth on the tip of my tongue — and the clever rhythm of Micah and Shane’s writing underscored by Cody Smith’s twitchy, driving drumming. What caught me on my first listen is the way that, I think, they wrote and recorded this album, all together. Everything about the songwriting and composition sounds perfectly in sync, right down to the acoustic heartbreak harmony of Micah and Shane together on “Insolent Youth”, the synchronicity of following Shane’s lovely-angry “Wanted To Be” with Micah’s “What Dying Is For”.
If the first few times through the album I was stuck on the sound of it — absolutely flattened by and obsessed with Cody’s drumming and Shane’s bass lines — the more I listen to it, the more the lyrics snag me. SSM is an album littered with references — from the blatant opening lines of Lydia: I want to be in love like an old soul song/I want to feel like the second verse of ‘Let’s Get It On’, to the sly (“December boys”) and obvious (tramps like us, we were born to run) tips of the hat to musical influences in “Jackson Don’t You Worry”, to the scattered literary and musical history references all over “My Great Gatsby” — but never in a way that distracts me. It’s been a game to me, listening to the album on repeat, catching the slyly tossed off allusions that Micah strings throughout his lyrics.
And just because you can doesn’t mean you should in “Insolent Youth”, which bruises my heart in the best way whenever I hear it, and the sweetly lilting bitterness of the chorus to “Sweet Saint Me”: all these bedrooms and battle scars/minor chords and pinball hearts/cheap tricks and false starts/the smoke and mirrors act that we’ve learned so well/only i can save me from myself. Or the opening verse of “My Great Gatsby”, which simply destroys me:
where is Woody Guthrie, man
when we need him most
i got strung out on these troubadours
and stranded on some coast
with the youthful glint still in my eye
i sat and watched my heroes die
now radios are useless
rest in pieces on the floor
so kiss kiss kiss these days goodbye
wipe those tears out of our eyes
this is not an alibi, baby, this is who i am
It’s a shot straight from the hip, straight at the heart of things, it’s a tiny piece of truth in a world where people lie all the time.
In a very early draft of this post, I said, thoughtlessly, that Two Cow had made me the album that I wanted Gaslight Anthem to make me as the follow-up to The ’59 Sound, because I think there’s something kindred in Micah and Brian Fallon’s songwriting. A level of verbal cleverness, of being fiercely literate and intelligent writers and musicians, that makes their songwriting styles closer to each other than anybody else. I think that Sweet Saint Me takes that rough pop guitar sound on in a more polished, more grown-up way, and I think that this is an album that Gaslight Anthem fans, and the My Chemical Romance fans amongst my friends, would really love. It’s clever, anthemic pop punk with a twang. Two Cow Garage made me the album that I wanted them to make me, that I’ve wanted them to make me for the last 10 months.
This will be my album of the year, by a wide margin, with no competitors. Both for subjective reasons, because I love it stupidly and totally and in entirely sentimental ways, and for objective ones, because the songwriting is stunning, the orchestration is fantastic, and they’re just a supremely talented band, individually and as a whole, a band who way, way more people should know about.
I’ve kept a running list of the best shows I’ve seen this year, sort of off-hand rankings; the Drive-By Truckers’ two night stand at the Lincoln, both Superchunk shows, Brian Fallon (where’s my fresh cup of coffee) & Dave Hause acoustic at the Black Cat. I will tell you, though, that Two Cow Garage is touring right now (with Dave Hause, even; theory: everything needs more Dave Hause), and if they are not the best live rock and roll band you see this year, you’re either going to see the wrong bands or else you’ve seen Red Collar a whole lot, and you’re excused. Bring earplugs, bring drinkin’ money, and go out and fall in love. Hell, last winter, Micah was out playing solo acoustic shows with the kind of fierce energy that most rock bands don’t bring to electric shows. Two Cow, live and in person, are flat-out one of the top three live bands I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. And I fully expect their show at Kings in Raleigh on October 17 to be, like their album, number one with a bullet on my end of the year list. I’ve been waiting a year and the album was as good as I expected, and more. Why shouldn’t the show be?
You can pre-order Sweet Saint Me from Suburban Home here, and while you’re at it, you might as well pick up the re-pressing of Micah’s solo album, plus Speaking In Cursive. And, hell, throw III in there, too. I promise you won’t regret it.