Like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, John Petkovic knows something about how the West was won. Open a package from Cobra Verdeís frontman a few days before US troops cross the Iraqi border and what falls out? Not just a copy of Easy Listening (MuscleTone), the bandís latest album, but a scribbled note: "Hey Hey . . . I didnít know Ďcoalition,í Ďfreedom,í and Ďliberationí could mean so many things." Itís not surprising that Petkovic would be tuned into the exigencies of Bush-speak: in non-rock life, he writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. More interesting is the way the best songs on Easy Listening are driven by the sense that the rot at the heart of public language has begun to spread to private life.
Take "Terrorist," which was first recorded in 1997 for a split seven-inch with Guided by Voices. (An earlier Cobra Verde line-up doubled as Robert Pollardís backing band.) After September 11, most bands would have buried that title faster than a Dixie Chicks disc at a Pat Buchanan bulldozer rally. But this re-recorded version finds Cobra Verde reveling in it: dissonant guitar figures clashing with T. Rex swagger as Petkovic, front and center, stammers "Iím your t-t-t-t-terrorist" with Daltreyesque relish. The wordís significance blurs, though, as Petkovicís persona takes on multiple dimensions. In the bridge, the music collapsing around him, heís a down-in-flames lover ("You shot me full of soul"). By the out chorus, heís a rampaging consumer ("Whatís my choice?/Buy this or that").
The more recently written songs are more tightly controlled but no less potent. "My Name Is Nobody" celebrates cipherhood with a bubble-weight sing-along chorus that suddenly downshifts into darker, harsher verses: "I tried to kiss the Devil/But I had no soul to sell." A few tracks later, the lumbering, Hedwigged-out "Modified Frankenstein" looks to fill the same void but comes up empty: "Iím too unreal to be untrue." Loss and reconstruction of identity are glam-rock mainstays, but theyíre rarely addressed this sharply.
Between Petkovicís shock tactics and his bandís increasing heaviness (which is bolstered on several tracks by recent tour partner J Mascis), itís fitting that Easy Listening found release in April from MuscleTone Records, a label headed by former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. You can imagine Kramer hearing Cobra Verde as kindred spirits on the strength of the opening track alone. "Riot Industry" is another to-the-gut riff rocker, complete with dropped-in crowd noise and lyrics that blur the line between revolution and hedonism as completely as anything Kramerís old outfit kicked out: "Was it the napalm or was it the perfume that killed my senses?"
Petkovic is one of rockís reigning extroverts; My Dad Is Deadís Mark Edwards is a candidate for all-time champion introvert. Both were products of Clevelandís post-punk explosion, a generation after the seminal Pere Ubu; both were in the Homestead stable during that labelís most influential period, Petkovic as the singer in Death of Samantha. The similarities end there. Cobra Verde are named for a Werner Herzog film, but Edwardsís persona could be out of Rainer Werner Fassbinder ó twitchy, isolated, seething under a low-affect veneer. (An early My Dad Is Dead song was titled "Anti-Socialist," and it wasnít about Joe McCarthy.)
The Engine of Commerce (Vital Cog) is Edwardsís first full-length since 1998. My Dad Is Dead has been a "band" (that is, one with other members) at various times through the years. But here, Edwards returns to the one-man home-recording approach heís generally associated with: programmed drums, sometimes supplemented with a real one; a guitar or two, in the latter case usually tonally indistinguishable from each other, and his anxious vocals, pitched somewhere between Bob Mouldís and Ian Curtisís. The technology has changed ó heís traded in his four-track for an ADAT ó but the bedroom- or basement-studio feel hasnít.
At 16 tracks, some overlong in themselves, the new disc is too unfocused to measure up to Edwardsís late-í80s peak. (The Homestead albums Letís Skip the Details and The Taller You Are, The Shorter You Get, both long out of the catalogue, are available for free download at mydadisdead.com.) Still, there are gems here, like "Labor of Love," where Edwardsís promises of undying devotion ("There is nothing that could take me away") sound more like threats.
Thereís even some evidence that external events havenít completely escaped the notice of this most private of musicians. On "All We Want," he awkwardly laments that "Visions of a different time fade in the war breeze." And the title track latches onto another empty contemporary phrase, this one from business rather than politics. But the result ó a vaguely industrial instrumental with early New Order touches ó is further evidence of the distance between Edwards and his fellow Clevelander: where Petkovic might howl, Edwards falls silent.