Though located squarely within the Amphetamine Reptile aesthetic — loud, loud guitars, lyrics full of hate (including self-hate) — Cows inject their little corner of the stable with more humor than such labelmates as Surgery and Vertigo. Taking a poke-in-the-eye approach to poking fun, the Minneapolis quartet aims to provoke its audience to express dissatisfaction with, well, everything. Onstage, singer Shannon Selberg has sported business suits with a stuffed animal on the crotch, football uniforms rendered in fake fur, shaving cream and not much else, a love doll remade as a second skin and other bizarre costumes. He presents himself as a character; literally drawing on new characteristics with a magic marker (not just tattoos, but facial hair and facial expressions), he transforms himself and pulls the immediate world down to his uncomfortable cartoon level.
Besides throwing off a frenzied psycho-guitar roar, the Cows take a viciously crude view of the world (enunciated in a tuneless shout by Selberg, who also provides the surprising sound of trombone and bugle), all mitigated by a wry undercurrent of humor. The badly recorded Taint Pluribus Taint Unum is an elementary introduction, a noisy storm of electrified steel wool that rushes through roughly cut songs like “Mother (I Love That Bitch)” and the instrumental “Summertime Bone” (Eddie Cochran sent to trombone hell) with more enthusiasm than effect.
A second ancient rock classic turns up on Daddy Has a Tail!, only the Cows’ version of Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” has different lyrics: “Yo girl, I love it when you make my asshole bleed…I’m shakin’ in my colon.” Ha ha ha. Overall, this horrible exercise in juvenile dementia makes the Cows’ first record sound like Dark Side of the Moon. With production that couldn’t be worse if the studio had been underwater, the murky rumble of Thor Eisenstrager’s overdriven guitar is an all-consuming swamp that muffles the entire effort.
Except for a mix that makes the distorted vocals nearly subliminal at times, Effete and Impudent Snobs shreds speakers with far more clarity and focus. Using trebly shards of layered guitar and thrusting fuzz bass, the Cows rock out snorting chunks of unhinged grunge with lyrics: some of the tracks (“Big Mickey,” “Nancy Boy Cocaine Whore Blues,” “Cartoon Corral”) even coalesce into vague song shape. If you’ve ever been tempted to find out what it would be like to stick your head in a blender, don’t bother — the Cows have already done it for you.
After that, the Cows abandoned their original sound — industrial-grade sandpaper guitar ripping over a jug band playing with scalpels — in favor of a chunky, stop-start style that makes most hardcore punk easy listening in comparison. Starting with Peacetika, the group also traded its twisted sense of humor for more screaming and pained chunks of noise in songs that punch, gut-level, over and over. The spectacular “Hitting the Wall” begins the album with pounding and whistling organized mayhem, which the weaker following tracks can’t equal.
Selberg’s tuneless, beaten and dented bugle had always appeared sparingly on Cows records; on Cunning Stunts (now there’s an old joke), the songs are peppered with its unusual, warbly depressed punctuation marks. Cows’ lyrics create an environment of distance: the thoughts, actions and lives are described so brutally you can only hope they’re meant to be ironic. Sexy Pee Story continues in this mode, adding themes of being cheated — by yourself, your pals, the boss, the government — to the usual torrent of hopelessness and disgust. The band’s previous musical jabs gives way to a toppling cascade of instruments.
The mediocre and disappointing Orphan’s Tragedy opens up an empty warehouse of sound, but — with meandering, plodding guitars and more instrumentals than usual — Cows don’t begin to fill it up. Bookending songs with opaque, unusual noises doesn’t make up for the empty middles.
The not dissimilar Whorn makes even greater use of horn. “Organized Meat” and “A Oven” favor bugle over guitar, while the rest form one big morass, lightened (very occasionally) by some cute/eerie whistling and faint piano (!). In places, the guitars dip so low they’re merely deep vibrating sludge. “A Gift Called Life” maintains Cows’ usual stance — a rant at everybody — yet reinjects that theme with some freshness and spontaneity.
Old Gold is a compilation of tracks from Cows’ early albums.
“I’m no entomologist,” admits Selberg in “Cabin Man,” the shaggy roach suicide story that begins Sorry in Pig Minor, which was produced by head Melvin King Buzzo, a likeminded Cow if ever there was one. Still, some sort of science is being practiced here, as all manner of extraordinary sounds emerge from the sonic laboratory. With the rank-breaking exception of the Latinic horn-led “El Shiksa” and the relatively restrained “Life After Beth,” Sorry in Pig Minor comes across less as eleven individual songs than as a prolonged symphony in adrenalized guitar wang (with accompanying bugle). Cows continue to hack at music with wit and strength.