One day last December, when dragging myself through a slow day at my record store job, a woman asked me about "that band . . . the one they play on the radio all the time. The one whose name begins with a C". My assumption was Creed, of course, since I knew how unfortunately inescapable they are. But no, it wasn't Creed, and she didn't seem like the typical Creed listener. I walked her over to the C section and she found what she was looking for-the debut CD from a band named Cousteau. "Have you heard it?" she asked. I said I hadn't. "Oh, you should," she replied "It's good. Nice, mellow, relaxing music."
I'll attempt to offer a more complete definition of Cousteau's sound than my anonymous customer was able to offer. She was merely the first of many who would come in and buy that disc -- it kept selling out -- and I soon heard the hit "The Last Good Day of the Year" all over Triple-A and Adult Contemporary radio, as well as on gobs of TV commercials. For those who missed it, it was truly one of the gems of last year's mainstream. While not exactly historically unique, the song's marriage of Bacharach-ian horns and smoky lounge singing stood as a nice counterpoint to the nu-metal so loved at the time.
So it may seem surprising that Cousteau is releasing their follow-up Sirena so close to the success of the debut. The debut was in fact issued almost two years ago and just took that long to catch on, and the band are wisely popping out a sophomore record in a timely manner to capitalize on the success of "The Last Good Day of the Year". And that song gives a fairly good idea of what to expect here, at least to a degree.
The music on Sirena doesn't differ greatly from the type of smokey jazz/pop/rock/lounge music that has become popular (again) over the past few years. None of this could've been a hit on alternative radio until a few years ago, when the interest in Burt Bacharach (supported largely by his Elvis Costello collaborations and his work on Austin Powers). But most of Sirena doesn't owe quite as much to Bacharach as "The Last Good Day of the Year" did, and in fact sounds more like peak-period Scott Walker or early Pulp. The arrangements on each song recall the simple, acoustic guitar-with-oversung-vocals approach of Pulp's pre-success albums, which makes sense since both acts owe a major debt to the aforementioned Walker.
What's missing on Sirena, though, is the fire or edginess of the work of Walker, Pulp, or even Tindersticks. While Jarvis Cocker tempered his band's early pastoral leanings with disconcerting vocals, Cousteau's offering feels decidedly "adult". That may mean it's great for dinner parties or sipping wine (and probably better in a live, club setting) but it feels devoid of the sinister, dark elements that made works by Walker (and by extension, Pulp) into classics. And those horns -- practically the reason for "The Last Good Day of the Year"'s existence and certainly the reason it snuck onto radio -- only pop up a few times here, and never as prominently. The best and most noticeable asset here is vocalist Liam McKahey, whose full baritone croon marks songs like "Nothing So Bad" and "Nothing to Myself", some of the disc's strongest cuts.
The problem, then, is that while some of this sounds pleasant enough when it's on the stereo -- listening to it while alone on a rainy Saturday morning certainly felt apropos -- only a few moments stick with you after the changer has spun to something else. And during the hour that the disc is spinning, it's hard to not want to just listen to "The Last Good Day of the Year" instead. That could be a testament to the strength of that single, or it could be indicative that Cousteau are too precious and too inoffensive to fully realize their own concept.