Some might hear the drink-yourself-to-death nihilism of punk in his music and see a tragic ending on the horizon. But in a town known for artists like Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats and The Lumineers, who have perfected the art of turning tragedy into sing-alongs, the Yawpers’ relentless dedication to fury and sorrow is a welcome reprieve. The trio stitches together blues, punk, classic rock, country and experimental noise to create a harsh soundtrack for Cook’s violently introspective lyrics.
The Yawpers borrow from Led Zeppelin, James Brown, the MC5 and Bob Dylan on their latest effort, Human Question, which was released April 19.
“Hopefully, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, because we love a lot of the bands that we are definitely stealing from,” Cook says. “It's just more interesting for us as players to mix it all up.”
Cook likens the Yawpers to John Zorn’s side project, Naked City. “[Zorn] wanted to make a band that sounded like rolling the dial on FM radio,” Cook says. “Obviously, we're a way less extreme version of that, but we like to borrow from all over.”
The Yawpers’ sound is created through stripped-down instrumentation: a drum, guitars, a wailing singer. It’s rock — unfashionable and surprisingly complex.
Human Question — released by Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot Records, which houses such artists as the Mekons, Jon Langford and Laura Jane Grace & the Devouring Mothers — opens with a dissonant chord, an ugly sound asphyxiating in rage. That chord tells us what’s coming: a furious opus of inner mess.
“We tried to go as hard as we could right out of the gate,” Cook notes.
Plummeting inward is nothing new for Cook. The Yawpers' third album, Boy in a Well, is a masterful Oedipal tale set to the backdrop of World War II, using a fictional narrative to try to understand the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Their first two records, Capon Crusade and American Man, are exercises in cocaine-fueled Americana kitsch. Human Question marks a different approach for Cook, who describes the album as more direct — with less wallowing.
“The last record was a little on the inaccessible side and was more of an art piece,” he explains. “This one, we wanted to make something accessible and fun and something a little less dour. It's intentionally more upbeat, happier — a somewhat more optimistic record.”
Throughout the album, Cook holds a magnifying glass over himself — the abused boy, the abandoned lover, the furious addict. He lets the sun blast through the magnifying glass and set all his gizzards and gristle on fire. But there’s hope shining in the muck.
“I guess my main goal is self-improvement, as banal as that may be...and probably futile,” he says. “I wanted to describe what a shitty person I am. I wanted to maybe try and write some advice for myself as to how to improve. That was the primary goal, lyrically, with the record. It hasn't done a whole lot of good, but I think it's important to view what you do every day as a means of trying to improve yourself as a human being.”
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Things have improved for Cook since he wrote the album. A couple of years ago, he was struggling through a tumultuous marriage that ended in divorce. His ex-wife moved back to her home country of France, and the breakup served as fodder for a number of his songs.
After he wrote “Carry Me,” one of the songs on Human Question, he says, “I set myself the goal of never writing about it again. And then I got shitfaced and sent it to my ex-wife and we got back together. That's been an interesting turn of events.
“I think it’s a good thing. It's a good thing until it isn't,” he adds. “But I’m happy, and she's happy. Things are good. It's complicated, because she lives in France. That makes it a little difficult, but it gives me more reason to travel, I guess.”
The Yawpers, 9 p.m. Friday, April 26, Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, $20.