Represents a distinct musical progression for Two Cow Garage.
“When I was young I was too messed up to realize I wasn’t very good/ I was just so happy to be here/ I sort of smiled and did the best I could… Now I’ve finally found my voice,” Micah Schnabel sings in that indelibly tobacco-stained growl of his on “Beauty in the Futility.” In most contexts, a statement of such triumphant self-realization would be worth celebrating. However, coming from Schnabel at this juncture, there are other factors to consider. First, there’s the fact that it may be too late for Schnabel’s new, apparently genuine voice to have any discernable impact on Two Cow Garage’s success and popularity – or lack thereof.
Brand New Flag is the Columbus garage rockers’ sixth album, coming in the band’s 15th year of existence. At this point, being chronically down on his luck—facing a life of musical obscurity and grappling with a slew of emotional issues—isn’t just one of Schnabel’s primary songwriting themes, it’s practically his only one. Over time, his means of expressing that ethos has evolved from a sort of grizzled disillusionment into nearly emo levels of vulnerability and at times overly-dramatic soul baring. Such is the process of finally finding his voice, it would seem.
This shift in lyrical style has necessitated a corresponding adjustment in musical approach as well. Moving away from the classic rock-inflected riff-and-shout-along-chorus template of great albums like 2007’s III and 2008’s Speaking in Cursive, the band now seems to be heading towards less distinctive vamps that allow more space for Schnabel’s verbose, spitfire rambling. This has at times obscured Schnabel’s natural gift for tunesmithing, especially on the band’s previous album, The Death of the Self Preservation Society, on which the arrangements were often undercooked and the vocals wildly overmixed to compensate.
Fortunately, Brand New Flag represents a distinct musical progression for Two Cow that corrects some of those issues and lends additional authority to Schnabel’s rants. The album is the band’s first since its addition of singer/songwriter Todd Farrell, Jr. as lead guitarist, augmenting its usual three-piece lineup with both a fuller guitar attack and a new source of tuneful vocals. The latter results in the appearance of some rich four-part harmonies—previously far beyond the purview of the ragged, lo-fi Two Cow—which are memorably applied on both the punky title track’s earworm, “I don’t believe in anything” refrain and the understated opener “Movies.” Here all four band members each take a verse and achieves a cinematic, atmospheric Americana sweep the band hasn’t managed since some of the more memorable moments of III.
There are also some distinctive piano parts on Brand New Flag. The line serving as the melodic bedrock of the bombastic single “Let the Boys Be Girls,” in particular, and the Springsteen-like breakdown in the middle of “Continental Distance,” help make Brand New Flag’s arrangements the most fully realized and mature in the band’s oeuvre. These new musical elements both support Schnabel’s “voice” and help him rein it in when necessary.
Bassist Shane Sweeny continues his ascent into a more prominent second songwriter role, contributing four songs that, as always, provide a baseline quotient of meat and potatoes rock sung in his irresistibly gruff baritone.
Here his most memorable efforts are the surging, socio-politically minded “History Now!” and the yearningly noisy “Continental Distance.” This leaves Schnabel some room to branch out with his songwriting, yielding especially interesting results when he synthesizes his newfound wordiness with a more traditional hook-based style. This is especially noticeable on “Shakespeare & Walt Disney” and the aforementioned “Beauty in the Futility.” Both songs feature wordy, almost rapped verses paired with highly melodic choruses—the former’s augmented by flamenco-flavored trumpet and backwards guitar strumming—whose catchiness helps to override the cringe-worthiness of painfully sincere lines like, “So fuck being clever/ We’ve got to be kind/ An iPhone for an iPhone has left us all blind.”
That said, Schnabel’s best song on Brand New Flag—and easily one of the best Two Cow has ever done—is also its most straightforward and traditionally structured. “This Little Light” is no less deeply personal than any other song on the album. In it, Schnabel recounts getting held up at gunpoint in a parking lot in terrifyingly vivid fashion. But rather than use that experience as a jumping off point to make long-winded, self-pitying proclamations, he stays grounded in the actual details of the story. Supported by a comfortably basic mid-tempo guitar riff, the song’s ultimate emotional payoff (“I’m not scared anymore/ ‘Cause I’d rather die in that parking lot/ Than ever feel that helpless again”) feels all the more powerful.