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Jacques Cousteau, master of the deep, was intimately acquainted with the oceans that make our planet such a lush home. His realm was the sea and all its complexities; through his photographic expeditions, he handed us sixty years' worth of mystery and beauty. For him, water was the ultimate symbol of love.
No wonder, then, that a band named after him attempts to explore both mystery and romance, a pursuit set to sumptuous, sexy grooves that appeal to listeners' cerebral and sensual sides: Cousteau's music is so sharp and slinky-smooth that it puts you in the mood. It is booty music for smart people -- something that goes best with red wine, husky sweet nothings whispered in a tingling ear, and shiny shirts that are easily unbuttoned.
This London-based five-piece, which is building a reputation faster than the easiest cheerleader at your high school, is led by producer and songwriter Davey Ray Moor, who plumbs emotional depths with his literate lyrics. Singer Liam McKahey has a buttery baritone that teases out the more human instincts of even the most casual listener. This is not wallow-in-your-pain music: It is designed to ease away the numbness and actually make us feel good.
"Who wants to talk to the angry guy at the party?" asks Moor, Cousteau's founder and keyboardist. "I think of the world of music as going to a party. Do you want to walk straight to the kitchen and talk to the angry guy?"
Despite its steamy inclinations, Cousteau's music is not of the "Let's get busy/feel like makin' love/sexual healing" school. Rather, it is neo-loungey, chamber Brit pop that feels like a less cheesy Burt Bacharach mating with a less mopey Tindersticks. "It's difficult to play music that's passionate and happy at the same time. What we try to do is create something that's very intense," says Moor, calling from Milan the day before the terrorist attacks in the United States (which adds a surreal twist to Cousteau's song "The Last Good Day of the Year"). "I like that things are tinged with a sense of hope, because I'm very aware of how miserable things are and how difficult it is to survive our times. There's lots of music around at the moment, particularly the new metal bands -- [and] even beautiful things like Radiohead -- are so angsty and so lacking in hope. I like objects of beauty and elegance. It makes you feel hopeful for the future."
Strange then, that the group draws so many comparisons to the melancholic, Ohio-born songwriter and cult icon Scott Walker, whose music is neither sexy nor hopeful. That lachrymose minimalist is better suited for gloomy winter introspection than pleasurable reflection. "There aren't very many rich baritones like Liam's in contemporary music," says Moor. "The last man to do it, really, was Walker, that kind of low, powerful singing. I've always found Scott Walker to be very mannered, very careful. His lyrics are always about observing people from his tenement. It all seems a bit...dank. The guy needs some vitamin C and to take a walk.
"When Scott Walker gets it right, he really gets it right, especially when he was doing that Jacques Brel stuff," Moor adds. "These kinds of songs, like Jacques Brel and Burt Bacharach, are the kinds of songs that very rich, full voices can get themselves around."
While it is certainly feasible and logical that Cousteau's musical lineage can be traced to all three of those singer/composers, it is far too easy to lump them all together. There are intricacies in the coupling of Moor's songwriting and McKahey's delivery that can't be found in their predecessors' work.
To look upon Liam McKahey, a native of Cork, Ireland, is to behold a rough-and-tumble fellow whose tattoos and ringed fingers suggest an Irish thug or a glitzy gangster. He's a man who'll cop to a lost decade, give or take, and it seems incongruous to watch and listen to him croon tender, multifaceted lyrics so sensitively. This persona -- the world-weary, tough-yet-tender guy with the biceps and the nicely tailored '50s-style suit -- lends a certain credibility to Moor's almost jaded lyrics. It allows him to explore darker themes as a songwriter, which he says he might not go toward if he were writing them just for himself.
He's always been inspired by sensitive, compassionate lyricists like Nick Drake, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen, influences that are apparent on the group's debut album, Cousteau. "The Last Good Day of the Year" is rife with imagery ("All the leaves are turning/Autumn's fingers burnished"), while "How Will I Know" wonders whether the speaker will be able to spot his true love ("You could be anyone/But how will I know/when my time has come?"). Meanwhile, additional players Robin Brown (guitars), Craig Vear (drums) and Joe Peet (upright bass and other stringed instruments) construct solid grooves that weave their way around Moor's words and McKahey's voice without pulling focus away from the frontman.
"There aren't that many people around making that kind of music, kind of tuneful and lyrical but with a sexy groove," explains Moor. "Often in music I find that various of those elements are mutually exclusive; a lot of great funk records have got really naff lyrics, and a lot of great lyrical records haven't really got a groove."