Three years ago, when Cobra Verde released its all-covers Copycat Killers, frontman John Petkovich was careful to explain that the band was exploring new production ideas and approaches. Easy Listening, in 2003, had established this former Guided by Voices backing band's riff-heavy, come hither sound, and set a career standard. Still no one was interested in a repeat performance. Covering Donna Summer, New Order, Leonard Cohen, and the Rolling Stones would open things up and help the band move forward. And, by all accounts it worked. Copycat Killers rocked and crooned and skittered in a way that extended Easy Listening's possibilities, but didn't reject them.
Haven't Slept All Year, begun in 2007, was meant to capitalize on that experiment, to bring all the ideas Cobra Verde had developed with Copycat Killers into focus on a batch of new songs. Then, sadly, real life intervened. Petkovich's mother became ill and eventually passed away. The whole project, the whole band went on hiatus for nearly two years. Consider the caterpillar that weaves its cocoon then stays inside for an additional run of seasons. When you open the thing up, is it a viscous mess or a whole new kind of butterfly?
Haven't Slept All Year is neither, not quite a mess but not a significant advance either. The best parts--"World Can't Have Her" and "Riot in the Foodcourt"--will remind you of Easy Listening. "World Can't Have Her" swaggers and leers like a half-blood cousin of "Modified Frankenstein," while "Riot in the Foodcourt," maybe the best song on the album, ramps up the AC/DC riffs and dives headlong into rock star hedonism. "I'm in love with strippers on drugs" chants Petkovich in the cut's sing-along chorus, and honestly, who isn't?
There are signs, as promised, of a wider sonic palette: the late night, muted trumpet skank of "Wasted Again," the throbbing disco bass of "Something About the Bedroom," the banjo stomp of "Free Ride." Yet these songs seem to be proving a point, rather than shaking a groove loose. There are all kinds of interesting ideas in play, but not enough focused energy. The band seems less overwhelmingly tight. The vocals are thin and a little strained. The weakness is particularly evident on the slower songs, none of which have the dissipated grandeur of "The Speed of Dreams."
The whole album feels rushed, as if the band suddenly panicked over the long hiatus, dusted off the old songs and hustled them out the door. It's not that Cobra Verde shouldn't try new things--Copycat Killers' experiments were as satisfying as they were offbeat. Still, it might make sense to let them develop a little longer. What's the hurry after all? • Jennifer Kelly