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."
Moor is careful to praise Cousteau's oft-neglected heroes, the ones that make the groove happen. "The players in this band are very, very subtle and very adept, and that's part of what makes it sound so sexy. They're very good players, but they play in that way that good musicians don't really play, which is sort of taking a backseat and letting the vocalist do his thing and just kind of sprinkling their sound in the grooves around the place to support the song, which I think is an enormous strength in the Cousteau lineup."
It's a strength that's become more and more refined since Cousteau's members started playing together in London in 1997. The Australian-born Moor had been working as a soundtrack composer in "a shack in the woods," and he used his connections in the London theater and dance spheres to assemble the band. He was actually Cousteau's original lead singer, but "discovered" McKahey at a dinner party. They knocked around for a while trying to get a record deal, but no one nibbled.
Then Fortune spun her wheel, and Cousteau experienced a change of tide. "We recorded Cousteau independently in 1999 and made 3,000 copies," says Moor. Bob Geldof (of Live Aid and Boomtown Rats fame) got his hands on a copy and played "Lunar Queen" while sitting in as a guest DJ on a London radio station. All 3,000 copies sold out soon after that.
Then, according to Moor, "The record industry, with its one good eye, looked at us and thought we'd be worth an investment." So the band went into the studio and re-recorded and remixed most of the tracks on the record and re-released it, this time with record-label/film-production company Palm Pictures footing the bill and affording the band some exposure in America.
Cousteau appeared in Colorado for the first time as part of the Gavin radio convention in Boulder this August. Prior to their show at Tulagi, a DJ from northern California explained that every time her station played a cut from Cousteau, the phone lines lit up with interested adults wanting to know who in the hell that was. These were not bored thirteen-year-olds calling up a radio station to avoid doing homework, she pointed out, but busy grownups taking time out of their days to find out what they had just heard.
It's hard to speculate just why this band is turning so many heads, but maybe, like its namesake, Cousteau is allowing listeners a rare peek at some deep mystery, some aspect of romance and sensuality that was previously hidden from view. Or maybe they just want the right music for wooing that special someone.
"The Cousteau thing was built out of an enormous preference for a sort of feeling -- you know, slightly reflective, slightly sexy at the same time, and slightly hopeful," Moor says.
Maybe that's what people hear in the music: hope. And that's something we could all use a little of right now.
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