Graded on a Curve:
So Cow,
Lisa Marie Airplane Tour

So Cow began over a decade ago as the project of one man and his songs. That man was Brian Kelly, and as time unspooled and recordings amassed his profile increased and the scenario transformed into a trio. Now Kelly is back to doing everything on his own, but rather than a troubling backslide Lisa Marie Airplane Tour is an inspired effort reinforcing its maker as a contemporary UK indie pop auteur of note. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the combined efforts of Seattle’s Jigsaw and Chicago’s Tall Pat Records, with the cassette edition produced by Jigsaw’s Emerald City cohorts Lost Sound Tapes.

Although geographically situated as Irish, Brian Kelly began So Cow while working as a teacher in South Korea. By 2006 he had the “Best Vacation Ever” EP out via the Rusted Rail label, followed by a couple self-released CDRs, a batch of singles, and a pair of splits, one a 12-inch alongside Squarehead on Inflated Records and the other a 45 shared with Image Makers on the Boston Pizza imprint.

A percentage of this material was collected on the 2009 self-titled LP/ CD issued by Tic Tac Totally; a year later the same label offered Meaningless Friendly as Kelly’s talent continued to blossom; specifically, the emphasis was firmly on ‘60s-ish indie pop songwriting rather than So Cow’s nature as a one-man project, a circumstance making the transition to a three-piece (featuring bassist Jonny White and drummer Peter O’Shea) a smooth one.

That shouldn’t suggest the change isn’t tangible; The Long Con, released in 2104 by Memphis label Goner, features the dynamic fluidity that marks it as the byproduct of a full band. Prior, So Cow wedded Kelly’s melodic sensibility to post-punky stomp, strum, and clamor as the results brought occasional comparisons to fellow UK act Television Personalities.

The Long Con did nothing to alter the approach except effectively rock a bit more, but his new LP will still likely be met with a few stated preferences for the robust group interplay of its predecessor. Really, the key word in the prior sentence’s prognostication is “few”; this is mainly down to So Cow’s focus, as indicated above, having never strayed from Kelly songs, with the dozen he’s collected on Lisa Marie Airplane Tour as sharp as anything in his back catalog.

Interestingly, Kelly commences his break from the band format with a nod to one of modern music’s great trios, though “What Makes a Man Start Gorse Fires” actually sounds nothing like San Pedro CA’s Minutemen. Instead, it jumps with both feet into the sort of aggressive guitar pop and bookish vocal delivery that marked his emergence on the scene.

The atmosphere of smarts derives in part from clean sung tones that strike this writer as in the same ballpark as Mountain Goat main man John Darnielle. Additionally, So Cow’s lyrics are learned, though fittingly for such a popish angle, not verbose; in its place is a sharp wit, though thankfully Kelly would be wrongly assessed as any sort of yukmiester.

It’s the type of scheme that often exudes a musically anemic aura, but that’s never really been true of So Cow, and it’s not the case here; “What Makes a Man Start Gorse Fires” is full-bodied enough to give the impression it was conjured up by a working band, a condition that’s even more evident in the flowing guitar roar and kit battering of “Asleep On a Bus.”

Kelly then injects a slightly off-kilter vibe to the riffed-out “Captain of Industry,” and follows it up with one of the album’s standouts, “Westerly Direction” barreling forth with stop-start propulsion that’s halfway between late-’70s minimal art-punk and the catchiness of power pop. For those thinking the latter ingredient is a stretch, please consider So Cow’s version of The Nerves’ “Working too Hard” to Volar Records’ Under the Covers Vol. 2: A Tribute to Paul Collins, Peter Case and Jack Lee.

Part of the treat in “Westerly Direction” is the segment where the tune basically falls apart so drastically that a brief return to spring-action velocity comes as a surprise. The track also underlines a tendency for concision as the spirited-jangle of “Disengagement” is the first entry since the opener to break the three-minute mark.

Throwing in a touch of organ lends a dab of psych-pop to So Cow’s equation, a quality extending into side one’s closer “At Home.” The flip begins with the sort of boisterous melodies and buzzsaw ambiance once and sometimes still called lo-fi, a tag that’s been occasionally attached to So Cow, but debatably; the lack of sheen doesn’t equate to sonic constraint, as “Something More,” like the record overall, bursts out of the speakers.

It should also go down strong on the live stage, though it and the ensuing cut “No Trades” will necessitate a touring band. “Batman, Tonight” contrasts, exploring a discernibly solo mode that momentarily hovers in the Joe Meek zone. From there “The Invigilator” further adds to the range on display, sparking thoughts of late-’70s melodic rock as the keyboard sound adds a new wave hue; “Wait It Out” takes on a non-toxic pop-punkish thrust.

“Half Past” provides a large dose of pop panache for the finale; like a fair amount of the album, it’s appealingly ’60s in comportment while resisting overplaying into pastiche. Ultimately, the most striking aspect of Lisa Marie Airplane Tour isn’t its successful reengagement with the one-man method, but rather that So Cow so fruitfully embodies a fresh (as in non-neo) indie pop vision.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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