Coughs | Secret Passage (Load)
Every time Coughs count off a song it's like a ticking toward detonation; every show they play is rumored to be their last. They threaten explosion and implosion too. These locals' most recent "last show" was last month at the Empty Bottle, during the Wire's Adventures in Modern Music fest, and their fiercely kinetic cacophony was as tight as it's ever been, awing and frightening an already timid crowd. (People who can afford a $15 cover are not Coughs' usual demographic.) The audience formed a polite arc at a safe distance from the stage, but the band refused them their distance--only four of the six members stayed behind their monitors. Front woman Anya Davidson took to the floor, shuffling around like an expiring windup toy, her eyes shut, bumping gently but obliviously into people as she screamed out a dialogue with a talking pimple ("Life of Acne"). And keyboardist and saxophonist Jail Flanagan barreled into the front row, charging ass first into the laps of the people sitting on the steps as she blew sick, squalling runs. You could almost see what the crowd was thinking: These people are wet with sweat and stink and they are trying to touch us.
Coughs use every instrument as a percussion instrument, not just the trashed, monolithic two-man megakit at the back of the stage--a multicolored heap of snares, cymbals, soup pots, floor toms, metal barrels, and bass drums mounted flat like tabletops. The guitar and bass pile on with more banging and chomping, and even the vocals and saxophone steer clear of melody--the songs could be sketched out with only two or three symbols, one for the thuds and another couple for the breaks and scree between the thuds. There's little that compares to the sound Coughs make, unless you abandon bands as points of reference: it's like a massive conglomeration of screeching worn-out cab brakes, assembly-line machines, and pneumatic nail guns, the whole thing driven by the maniacally rapid heartbeat of a small mammal. The closest aesthetic antecedents are either early Boredoms or a car crash.
On their new album, Secret Passage (Load), they play like they're trying to tear apart the songs themselves and maybe take down whoever's listening as well. But the mushroom cloud rising from this destruction has a silver lining--the explosion is more like the Big Bang, and it feels like something huge is happening inside that bubble of blast heat. Coughs' intensity makes them seem bigger and more important than just a band; they stand for the destruction of contemporary pop with all its rote prescriptions and attendant soul death. They're a cleansing fire purging the earth of the swagger of the Stones, the tired aggro posturing of punk and hardcore, the vapid I can't live without yous of R & B--their music clears a space for the clever-whatever that's coming in their wake. Direct and unmediated, not referencing much of anything, it's at times purposefully ugly, even gloriously so. But the fury doesn't come out of hate; it's pure hearted, boldly altruistic. On their MySpace page (as close to a manifesto as Coughs have bothered to get) the "Sounds Like" box says "genres collapsing." That is in fact what they sound like, and they're doing us a favor: lighting a path out, delivering us to the future via filthy noise.
When I saw Coughs play for the first time this spring, I was filled with prommy sentiment: I leaned and yelled into the side of my best friend's head, "I don't want this night to ever end." But I've also seen the band bring out the worst in an audience, usually when some deeply damaged Reaganomics babies try to up Coughs' ante with extra insolence. This summer at a Coughs show in some crumbly warehouse, I watched a modelescent girl with long golden tresses and expensively wrong clothes stand amid the surging crowd and carefully hock gobs of spit onto Davidson. The girl's pupils were pinpricks and she had blood on her face, like she'd gone over her handlebars on the way to the show. But she couldn't add to the chaos or top the damage Davidson had already done to herself: her too-small dress was shredding and slipping off her as she heaved, screaming, her hands pulling at the nest of her hair.
The way Davidson acts is just not how you ever see women present themselves in bands. Even when the most ferocious and confident women perform, there's almost always an allusion to the expectations they're sidestepping--to come across as "bad girls" they need the rules hovering close at hand. But Davidson doesn't seem aware those rules ever existed--half the time she doesn't even seem aware of the audience. I've never seen a woman so naturally give less of a fuck. You could call it feminist if she seemed more conscious of what she's doing--it's like she was dropped here by aliens and never suffered the USA damage that makes girls kowtow involuntarily to the watchful eyes of convention. She's our very own Iggy, unzipping her pants to expose the delicate print of some Hanes Her Ways as beer drips from her hair and howling like Patti Smith if she'd come up on bunk acid and small-town metal bands instead of blues and Baudelaire. She's Niki de Saint Phalle, riddling her canvas with bullet holes out of love and rage.
The other members of the band--a motley Bad News Bears assortment--are hardly cookie-cutter personalities themselves. Percussionists Jon Ziemba and Seth Sher play standing up, often shirtless, like they're trying to beat their way out from behind the piled-up barricade of their gear with constant colossal rolls and the martial rattle of a meth-powered high school marching band. Guitarist Vanessa Harris, who often sports a crooked coonskin hat, is the band's melodic glue, though that's not saying much--air-raid-siren squeals and one-note unsolos are her specialty. Bassist Carrie Vinarsky dresses like a postmenopausal hausfrau--last time I saw her she was wearing a turtleneck, high-waisted pleat-front jeans, and an embroidered vest--but her bass tone is so punishingly swampy it'd make the guy from Killdozer jealous.
Coughs began in 2001 as a cross between an experiment and a dare--no one in the band was allowed to play an instrument she already knew how to play. Their earlier recordings are rippin', but their haphazard spazziness makes them sound like the product of an accident rather than a collective aesthetic decision. From its first atonal bleat, by contrast, Secret Passage pounces with a purposeful ferocity. Coughs' wretched, razor-sharp skronking still has a homemade charm--like a shank fashioned by rubbing a toothbrush against a jail-cell wall--but now it has a keen and assaultive focus, proving that they've figured out how to engage their instruments for maximum damage. Their early insistence on learning as they went has made their playing more idiosyncratic and unsettling as they've developed chops--though "chops" is a relative term, of course, and in this case it just means they can stomp and churn in unison when they want to.
Secret Passage is also a joyous record, positive and uplifting, despite its calamitous clanging, murder screams, and asexual grind. Davidson may sing like she's trying to punch a hole through a wall with her voice, but her lyrics are genuine, colored with a strange innocence. You'd never guess, watching her force every ounce of air from her lungs till she's beet red, that she's screaming about mountains, birds, dreams, gardening, freedom, or pining for a lover who arrives on goatback. On "15 Hole," when she barks "Je suis bombe atomique," it's as much a promise as a threat.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Philip Montoro.