It’s clear from the first few bars of Woman‘s opener, “Jesus Flag American Fish”, that somebody at Cuckoo Chaos HQ in San Diego has been listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland. As far as starts go, it’s a good one — indeed, there are people around who almost equate a fondness for that record as a prerequisite for personhood. These SoCal souls are about more than just combining indie rock with afro-pop, however. With demonstrable interests in calypso, surf, and funk music — not to mention a bit of Chinese spiritualism on the side — Cuckoo Chaos have a diverse sound which on Woman is grounded by the uniting theme of “young love and the struggles associated with it”.
Instrumentally, the band would be plain greedy to ask for a better rhythm section to provide the basis for their tunes. Garrett Prange’s funk-influenced bass lines consistently refuse to be ordinary and are wonderfully complemented by Dave Mead’s drumming, which is often frenetic but never in a way which detracts from the top end. Up there, the band’s three guitarists can each flit seamlessly and seemingly without effort through the whole gamut of their influences, while vocalists Scott Wheeler and Jackson Milgaten protest that “the mind can’t comprehend what the heart understands”. Found on “Healthy Ghost”, that line seems to explain that to achieve a sound this engaging, intelligence and craft alone won’t do — it takes instinct and feel, too.
Given all they have to show, it is odd and unfortunate that Woman offers Cuckoo Chaos only seven songs and 26 minutes to ply their wares. While happily they load the first six slots of this neither-here-nor-there EP/LP package with the danceable art rock they do so well, the inclusion of “Massage Song” as a closer is a major misstep which is difficult to overlook. Consuming by itself almost six minutes of the band’s — and our — time, the song is mostly lacking in the diversity and unpredictability that made Cuckoo Chaos an interesting prospect in the first place. The inclusion of this languid noodling session would be more tolerable as part of a larger project, but Woman is otherwise small and neat enough to be genuinely damaged by its energy-sapping influence.
It takes only another listen to a cut like “Just Ride It”, though, before our defenses are down again. Although it makes a real feature of Prange’s tactile bass work, there are always more layers to discover, not least the delicate and Africa-inspired guitar performances. “Bad Bad Man” is a little less layered and a little more slight, but it proves that our San Diego boys can turn up the pace a little when required without sacrificing their diversity. It’s not just the heady days of Graceland‘s summer of ’86 that Woman brings to mind, either — the band’s emphasis on tight instrumental performances recalls the ambitious ’70s rock groups who sought to master what they call “world music” to embellish and specify their sound.
That Cuckoo Chaos unite influences that range so widely in space and time is a testament to their ability as musicians; sadly, that Woman is so short and so frustratingly close-but-no-cigar with respect to consistency is somebody’s major failure of track-listing. The abiding sense is that this band have a way to still travel with their worldly sound, however, and this short but sweet taste of where they are right now is more than reason enough to want to ride shotgun.