by Nick Hanover
I don’t know whether this says more about me, my generation or the current state of media technology but when Nine Mile Records mailed Ovrd a CD copy of Sweet Spirit’s new album Cokomo, I couldn’t even fucking play it. I forgot my laptop lacks a disc drive, apparently PS4’s “don’t recognize” CD technology and the only stereo here at Casa del Ovrld is a turntable. I have a cassette player because a beer company inexplicably mailed one to me but CDs aren’t just seemingly obsolete but unloved, uncoveted and unmarketable. Which meant the only option was to drive around, doing circuits on North Loop, blasting Cokomo and I’m not gonna lie, it feels like that’s what Sweet Spirit were hoping for all along.
At a very tight 12 tracks, Cokomo is a more confident and fuller departure from Sabrina Ellis’ other projects, less chaotic than emotionally volatile– this is music that aims to soundtrack not just the journey to hastily planned house parties but also the regretful drive home that follows. Some of that is due to the sorrowful way Sweet Spirit utilizes classic rock influences, turning Austin’s embarrassing crush on all things ’70s into something more melancholic. “Break Your Bones,” for instance, marries a Beatles riff to ’70s Stones sleaze but Ellis’ melody is profoundly exhausted, making it clear that when she sings “If you land your ass in jail/I’m gonna break your bones” it’s from the perspective of someone worn out by a lover who can’t stop making the same mistakes only to realize she’s making the same mistakes herself by never carrying out that threat of repercussions. In a city where the party never stops and the drug soaked heyday of four decades past is viewed as a narcotic garden of Eden, Sweet Spirit are a perfect expression of the burden of good times, the throwback angle of their sound fun but also a reminder that we keep falling into the same traps, embracing the same old shit, desperately trying to never grow up.
Even the more outwardly celebratory efforts on the album showcase this cyclical restlessness, the difference is that they do so with the kink of getting off on the pain and anxiety. “Baby When I Close My Eyes” is perhaps the apotheosis of this, borrowing Blondie’s icy disco romance sound to run through that crush exercise of giving each letter of your boo’s name a deeper meaning, only to build to a climax where the feeling of loneliness itself becomes coveted. We get a glimpse at the other perspective on “Someone Like You,” as Andrew Cashen initially takes the lead on vocals to express the frustration of being pursued by someone with such relentless, unwavering affection, though even there a dominance and submission angle is at play, as the crush object confesses the real problem is “I can’t control you.”
That question of control might give Cokomo a lot of its thematic framework but sonically, the album is arranged and produced with envious clarity of vision. Mike McCarthy doesn’t dial back the frenzy of the band’s live show so much as he reins it in, something that is all the more impressive when you factor in the nine regular band members and the six additional guests, all playing such nontraditional Austin instruments as the flugelhorn, the tuba and the “wet whistle.” There is always the sense that everything could spill over and collapse but that adds to the excitement, particularly on tracks like “Poor,” where rockabilly guitars and drums brush up against synthesizers, dueling vocals, piano, and who knows what else. Ditto “Rebel Rebel,” which has more headroom in the mix but there the volatility comes from the precarious balance of zig zagging guitar riffs and strings that swell alongside a girl group inspired chorus build.
All in all, it makes for a bracing experience, never letting you settle as it shifts gears musically and emotionally without warning, unified only by its unease and the vivid portrayal of the emotional and personal hardships that keep pushing the definition of better further and further past attainability. If you’re a safe traveler, maybe you want road trip music that is strictly comforting and familiar. Cokomo isn’t that kind of soundtrack, it has familiar audio milemarkers and textures and familiar emotional baggage for anyone still trying to discern their role in life but it rejects comfort, instead wanting to explore the deeper meaning of the chaos it surrounds itself with. And I think anyone who has been in Austin long enough will agree that at a certain point in your journeys, that self-awareness is what you really need.
Sweet Spirit play ABGB this Saturday, October 24th, with Lowin and John Wesley Coleman III.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover