In terms of music and his general career, the Covid-19 pandemic hit Young Guv‘s Ben Cook particularly hard. By April 2020, he found himself tour-less and virtually homeless, holed up beside New Mexico’s Taos Mountain with five bandmates inside a recycled structure called an Earthship. In Ben’s words, “I was isolated, the world was in complete chaos… I lost control of the routine that I thrive in.” The result? Two parallel albums of new material, Guv III and Guv IV, were released three months apart, and they explore disparate sides of the artist’s varied influences.
Before continuing, it should be noted that simultaneous off-kilter releases tend to provoke consternation and disagreement among fans. One immediately thinks of Foo Fighters‘ schizophrenic yet mostly successful 2005 double album In Your Honor, whose hard rock benchmarks were somehow eclipsed by the stark and shockingly reflective ballads gracing disc two. (Though I date myself, 1970s variety-show heroes Donny & Marie also come to mind. “A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll!”) Perhaps it’s a matter of taste, but Guv III and Guv IV elicit similar divergent feelings, all to the latter’s detriment.
Five months in, Guv III has proven to be one of 2022’s most effervescent releases thus far: chiming, shining, boasting more depth than typical old-school power-pop while still pursuing a deceptively complex Byrdsian muse. Unfortunately, with its softer, countrified, steel-guitar approach, Guv IV can’t help but suffer by comparison. It seems unfair for a parasitic ink-stained wretch outside the arena of combat to point this out. But Cook is so darn good at forging his signature David Crosby/Roger McGuinn sound that anything else feels like misdirection. Sad to say? It’s a squandered opportunity.
Not that Guv IV is terrible; far from it. Several tracks would easily make the cut for a Guv III bonus EP, while a few others manage to stand on their own (if barely). The out-of-nowhere dissonant horns closing out the psychedelic gem “Sign from God” are startling and innovative, especially coming atop the echo-ey guitars priming the rest of the song. “No Where at All” does Guv IV‘s best job following Guv III’s triumphant formula, with a candy-flavored guitar fadeout as haunting as it’s addictive.
Yet if the remainder is a mixed bag, it’s mainly miss. The limp steel guitar backing “Cold in the Summer” is too low-key to maintain any interest whatsoever; same with the forgettable strummed final track “Wind in My Blood”. “Nervous Around U” crashes an early Police riff into juvenile They Might Be Giants beats, leaving a bloody highway wreck that no rubbernecker would even bother staring at. “Overcome’s” shaker-assisted percussion becomes tedious at the two-minute mark, let alone five, bringing MiVanilli’sli’s egregious 1980s hits to mind. (Sorry.) Meanwhile, “Cry 2 Sleep” is the worst sonic offender of all – a song so treacly and irritating, Cook might as well be poking the listener in the arm instead of singing. As a general rule, Guv IV‘s best tunes start and end the record, bracketing the subpar efforts in the middle. Oddly enough, Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices fell victim to similar lapses on some of his solo records, leaving canyon-sized holes to mar otherwise satisfactory work.
It’s often been said that if someone doesn’t like New England weather, all they have to do is wait a few minutes. Cook has followed false trails and dead ends before, yet always righted the ship eventually. So rather than a condemnation, please consider this a resounding endorsement of March’s still-resonant Guv III – and a request that next time, Cook returns to what he does best.