The Backwards Life Of Romeo
When Cowboys International’s 1979 album The Original Sin was reissued last year, it snuck onto my list of favorite music for 2003. In part because it sounded like a record that truly was ahead of its time, with strong lyrics (“I will buy you something that you can remember me by…will you remember me…why?”), deceptively hook-filled melodies and pleasing-to-the-ear arrangements.
So how does a new record sound now that the future has caught up to the Cowboys International noise? Well, writer/producer/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Ken Lockie’s return to the band identity 25 years later is more problematic. I’m not being disingenuous, I really mean problematic; there have been moments when I don’t know what I think of this album. The first time I heard it, I was knocked out by the original arrangements and distinctive singing. The second time, not so much. One more and I started noticing the way tracks like the title tune and “Escape” had slipped into the back of my mind.
So I think where I stand with this is that it’s an album impossible to ignore; one that announces the return of a truly original creative voice to songwriting. But there’s an air-conditioned, in-studio quality to some of the album, especially in the electronic drums.
Sometimes that quality is part of the point, such as on the terrific “Ready Steady Go.” On this track, Lockie samples the elements of a ’60s dance-pop song (Farfisa organ, surf guitar, sax) and hooks them up in a not-quite-natural fashion, but one that makes for blissful moments of surprisingly perfect pop. Some of the other arrangements make me wish I could hear the songs after Lockie had a chance to perform them in concert for a while and let them breathe, most notably the sexy “Angelina.”
Most of The Backwards Life of Romeo could have been released any time 1980. If The Original Sin was reminiscent of pre-Let’s Dance David Bowie (only better), this new record is a bit like Bowie might be recording if he weren’t such a compulsive chameleon.
A better comparison, and then I’ll drop the parallels, might be if Bowie is the fashion plate, slipping into this season’s shoes with all the grace of a straight guy who’s already been queer-eyed, Lockie is more like a guy who found a look that works for him and stuck with it. Yet one of the things that stand out about Cowboys International is that while it often touches on familiarity, it never quite gets there. It’s as though Lockie were a tour guide showing you a quick series of postcards and then taking you somewhere different.
When the smooth, glassy sci-fi strings of “Silent Sky” kick in, or when “Escape” begins with sheep-like electronic bleating, you might be forgiven for thinking you know what to expect: Calling Depeche Mode, Thompson Twins, Information Society and so on. But you don’t, quite; what you get in the one case is a portrait of loneliness, in the other, a nice and easy ballad, neither as expected.
The Backwards Life Of Romeo is like an in-your-face flashback for those who remember what used to be called modern rock, the soundtrack to a present-day sequel to a John Hughes film.
Cowboys International: www.cowboysinternational.com