On So Cow's first full-band record, the trio sounds natural and the songs instinctual, even as they tighten into tense, nervous coils, twisting the edges and tilting the balance of typical garage rock structures.
The Long Con is, in many ways, a debut. Despite there being other So Cow full-lengths, such as 2010's Meaningless Friendly, this new record is the first where frontman Brian Kelly brought in an honest-to-god band to record with. To this point, the Irish performer has been a one-man band on record, but The Long Con marks a move to a lean, strong trio on record, and it's also their first album to be released on Goner Records.
We've also got an actual producer at work on this record in Deerhoof member Greg Saunier. He worked with So Cow to record and mix this album in under a week. The immediacy of the recording is all over this record, and there's a certain success in capturing a live-band sound on this record, one missing from Kelly's past recordings. But The Long Con is a great album not just because it sounds like a band, but because it sounds like a dynamic, ever-shifting set of songs performed with agility and polish by a band with equal parts punk energy, rock muscle, and pop sensibility.
The band speed-hops through sharp opener "Get Down Off That Thing", moving from bright jangling guitars to rumbling bass, crashing drums and distortion after Kelly admits, "I'd rather not deal with facts / They tend to hurt." Like the opener, "Science Fiction" seems stuck between wanting to move on and not knowing where to go. But if "Get Down Off That Thing" is all frenetic nerve, "Science Fiction" is a slow burn, as Kelly half-mumbles through crunching guitars and the propulsive rhythm section. Kelly admits, "I don't want nothing else but you," but his voice is hope tempered with resignation. His is the voice of a person who's been through disappointment, who's not stuck but will definitely temper expectations. The propulsion in this record comes across like a sprint towards the next thing. On "I Want Out", Kelly sings about his neighbors like obstacles to overcome, walls closing around him as he makes a break for the door. "The Other One" tells the story of a one-time musician haunted by the echoes of a past fame that never quite materialized.
There, and in others on the record, this moment feels both isolated and oddly comforting. On closer "Barry Richardson", Kelly's narrator has been abandoned by other friends, so he drinks with the titular barfly instead. There's a larger game to play for in these songs, and Kelly sings and the band plays like they're smart enough to know better tomorrows are coming, but in the meantime these characters get themselves stuck in short-term trouble, either that or they find a short-term escape. Sometimes the trouble is the escape. What makes the record a fascinating coming-of-age tale is how it's hard to tell if that title, The Long Con, is self-imposed or an external problem. Either way, So Cow is confronting it.
The music here reveals all the nervous tension in its fine details. On one level, this is straight-ahead garage rock and pop. But guitar notes get bent at every turn -- check the wobbling shifts in "Barry Richardson" or the instrumental "Say Hello" -- and the band stops and starts on a dime. "Operating at a Loss" starts with moody crashing chords and drums, before melting into smudged, power-pop hooks. "Guess Who's Dead" gets punctured by oddball hooks in its verses and then cut into chunks in the chorus and bridge.
With Saunier's help, So Cow has put together a set of songs that twist the edges and tip the balance of basic rock structures into something off-kilter, surprising, and fresh. If the narrators are sometimes stuck here, Kelly has cut fully free with this trio on record. The songs are so good at shifting structure and texture that some attempts to switch up the sound, like the tin whistle that starts off "Sugar Factory", feels just a touch forced. That opening in particular feels out of place next to the warbling keyboards on "Science Fiction", where the added instrument is layered subtly into the mix and meshes with the other elements as much as it upsets them.
So Cow emerges on The Long Con as a fresh new voice in rock music, and the band has a sound that is inherently dynamic and doesn't need to sit still. That most of The Long Con feels natural and instinctual, even as it tightens into tense, nervous coils, is what makes it a perfect record for young adulthood. These are songs about learning from some mistakes while still knowing that, whatever they are, there are still plenty more to come. All you can do is bob and weave as much as possible. This is the sound of So Cow learning how to shift, how to change, and in that way find something, oddly enough, that is consistently, sturdily theirs.