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Garage Rockers With a Lot of Soul

The Detroit Cobras want to hear favorite oldies, so that's what they play-- with souped-up intensity that's winning raves.

October 10, 2002|NATALIE NICHOLS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Motor City is White-Stripes hot right now, and scores of suddenly in-demand musicians there are channeling the sonic chaos of the Stooges and the MC5. The Detroit Cobras' punk-soul music is no exception, but its emotional radar is fixed on the South. They're pouring punk energy into the work of such stars as New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas and pioneering L.A. folk-pop singer-songwriter Jackie DeShannon.

"We really love sounds like that," says Cobras guitarist Maribel Restrepo. Adds vocalist Rachael Nagy, "And we don't get to hear it unless it's coming out of our record players."

Or out of their own instruments. At the moment, the Stripes and their New York counterparts the Strokes are making a big pop-culture splash with new songs born out of the old garage-rock impulse. The lower-profile Cobras, who will perform two local gigs this week, don't play originals (yet). But their revved-up takes on old soul and rock 'n' roll have pricked up some critical ears.

The quintet's 2001 sophomore album, "Life, Love and Leaving"--released by Long Beach-based Sympathy for the Record Industry, former indie home of the White Stripes--scored a modest berth in last year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics poll. The group's taut yet furiously freewheeling live performances have garnered rave reviews, particularly for former butcher and exotic dancer Nagy's takes--by turns seductive, brash and torchy--on such classics as DeShannon's "He Did It," Mary Wells' "Bye Bye Baby," and Otis Redding's "Shout Bama Lama."

Nagy and Restrepo are the heart of the 6-year-old group, whose lineup changes almost daily. It often includes Black Crowes pianist (playing bass) Eddie Hawrysch, and currently includes drummer Ken Tudrick and touring guitarist Dan Maister.

The dynamic-to-extremes pair has such passion for and understanding of the old stuff, one would think Nagy and Restrepo could easily distill its essence into their own songs. Yet they seem reluctant to write their own tunes. "We don't have to worry about writing the originals till this is really big," Restrepo says with a throaty laugh.

The group recorded more outside material for an EP to be released later this year by Rough Trade in the U.K., Restrepo says. It also plans to start on a third album, maybe including its own material, after completing this West Coast tour.

Mainly, the women think it's impossible to improve on the old songs, to say nothing of the performances. "We're all a bunch of burnt-out punk rockers," Nagy says of the group's approach. "It's a filter. There are certain little things we try to do, but we're not brainstorming on how to make our mark." Compared with someone like Irma Thomas, Nagy says, "we don't have that natural thing, where it just oozes out of you. These women just sing so effortlessly. It's their soul bleeding all over you." She sighs blissfully.

No 'Whiny' Lyrics

The rambunctious duo prefers attitude mixed with suffering rather than "whiny woman stuff," as Restrepo puts it. Modern love songs, Nagy adds, are just too obvious.

"In some songs, you know these people just met, and they're going, 'Oh, baby, I love you so much.' And it's like, whaaat?" says the singer. "In the soul stuff, these people have probably been fightin' and lovin' for 10 years. They can't get each other out of their hair, and they're always gonna be tied together."

Detroit bands have been getting more notice from record executives as well as journalists, but Restrepo says the attention hasn't had a huge effect on the Motor City's diverse, insular and decidedly noncommercial rock scene.

"The weirdest thing is stuff like Seymour Stein coming in," Restrepo says, referring to the Sire Records mogul who signed such '70s punk acts as the Ramones and Blondie. The Warner Bros. exec has been scouting the area. Reaction among her peers has been mixed, she says. "Half the people are sort of suspicious, and the other half are secretly enjoying it." Restrepo says, laughing sardonically. "And the other half is going, 'Who is Seymour Stein?' "

If people outside their hometown ask the same about the Detroit Cobras, Restrepo and Nagy are OK with that. Even now they don't spend much time dwelling on their mainstream potential. But recent experiences have surprised them.

"It used to be that I knew most of the people at the shows, and they were hipsters or whatever," Nagy says. "Now, normal people are buying the record. They come in raving about the music. I'm pessimistic about it, and this isn't me fishing [for a compliment], I swear."

*

The Detroit Cobras play tonight at 11:30 at Spaceland, 1717 Silver Lake Blvd., L.A., (213) 833-2843. $15. Also Friday at midnight at the Knitting Factory Hollywood, 7021 Hollywood Blvd., L.A., (323) 463-0204. $15. Show starts at 9:30 with the Dirtbombs and KO and the Knockouts.

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