February 19, AS220: A crowd of twenty stood silent. Gangly and guileless, So Cow fumbled about the stage as they set up, adjusting the levels on their guitars amid the sound-check fuzz. Front man Brian Kelly grinned sheepishly, inched closer to the mic, and began to recount an experience from his trip to Canada, something mumbled about touring in Ontario and related driving distances. After a good two minutes, his face cracked into a laugh, and soon a guffaw. Unfortunately for him, no one else caught on. Awkward pause. Realizing he wasn’t quite the raconteur he thought himself to be, he squinted to the back of the playing space. The production assistant gave them the thumbs up, and Kelly gestured to his drummer.
My boyfriend and I turned to each other and cocked our heads partly in confusion, and partly in good spirit. No sooner did we turn back did So Cow begin to sputter out an aggressive and untidy melody at a breakneck tempo. Considering the lulling, slightly rickety, and conscientious nature of recordings like “Halcyon Days,” it was as if So Cow had instead taken up shop inside a sweltering garage party with sparse refreshments and equally sparse breathing room. Gone were the winsome harmonies, the tight guitar twangs, the invitingly hazy atmosphere. Instead came lyric-shrieking, bass-noodling, guitar-booming noise.
So Cow—initially just the open-mic-attending, traveling college lecturer Brian Kelly—originated in late 2006 in Seoul, South Korea. He’s released two full-length CDs, an EP, and a few singles on his own. His first LP, So Cow, was released in 2009 by Tic Tac Totally Records, and in 2010, he plans to release a new LP entitled Meaningless Friendly and an extensive tour in North America and Europe. Falling victim to the dubious nomenclature of “noise-pop,” and often compared to bands like Television Personalities or the Clean, So Cow tries to bring earnestness to a genre that usually connotes jangly guitars and abstruse lyricism. Aiming for those “Oh, I get it” moments in his music, Kelly writes relatable lyrics: he writes for the underdog, for the kid who fell in love with Jenny Cooper next door but didn’t have the balls to ask her to prom. Kelly couples these lyrics with a homemade sonic feel without sounding like scrabbling, buzzing lo-fi. His self-titled LP evinces this intimacy in song: the guitars are sparse and deliberate, the drums are tight, and his lyrics and harmonies twinkle over top.
Kelly and his rhythm section tore through their set list in 45 minutes. The thin-framed devilish drummer plowed through songs and the lumberjack of a bassist plucked thick bass lines as he tromped about the stage. Kelly would take the opportunity during solos to simply “rock out” and eke out soaring riffs. These melodies, however, were like pebbles skipped across a pond: nice for a short gander or consideration, but quickly sunk and forgotten.
Take “Casablanca,” for instance. The cutesy, Beach Boys-esque chord progression is a treat initially, but wears a listener down after repeating for three-plus minutes. That, coupled with Kelly’s pained cries of “Casa! Blanca!” in the chorus, is a red flag for a pop song in need of rehab. The distortion obscured any sort of nuance in the songs, yet did provide a sort of basic three-note progression to hold on to, in case you became lost in the flurry of So Cow–frequency.
The intrigue for a song like “Ping Pong Rock” lies in its lyrical play. The distortion, however, made the song gurgle, as words began to pile up against each other and gush over into something that amounted to a sound not unlike a pulsating dial tone.
Considering the insistent sonic clash of So Cow’s performance, Kelly’s lyrics sounded sprinkled onto the songs: tender, almost saccharine-sweet croons amid the crash-bang of stentorian noise. Kelly deploys his signature adolescent tropes with lines like “growing old ain’t no fun.” These lines are no doubt endearing, but cloying song after song after song and moreover, completely irreconcilable with the timbre of the music blaring from the amps. Drunken audience members appreciated the lyrics, however, as they tottered across the room arm-in-arm ecstatically reciting Kelly’s lyrics back to him (and to whomever happened to fall within their trajectory).
So it seems that So Cow has two personalities. Which So Cow am I supposed to root for? The kid at home, tossing his head back and forth as he croons sweet nothings from upon a stool, or the badass punkish rock stars with the sound to match? Though the intent to bring a new dimension to their music is admirable, the sound So Cow produces in a live show is ultimately incompatible with recordings and their musical identity. Some incongruity can be attributed to equipment malfunction, but the hard-rock intention was still there, and it doesn’t really make sense. I’ll pass on the noise-pop identity crisis, thanks.