I typically like to review albums once they've been released, but watching the second presidential debate before reviewing Two Cow Garage's latest release Brand New Flag (due Thursday) seemed fitting. When my one-percenter, Trump-supporting dad is, without irony, discussing the fact that it doesn't matter how ridiculous he is, at least Trump will give him a tax cut -- and that even though he's used this line many times in the past, Trump's the first Republican candidate in my memory who actually thinks like my dad -- it's abundantly clear that this election is not about whether or not Trump or Clinton wins. When both candidates think an acceptable response to a legitimate question about Islamophobia is to continue to talk about Muslim people -- to a Muslim person's face -- as if they are outsiders in America and it's "their" responsibility to regulate "themselves," it's about whether the rest of us stand to lose a lot or little from the next election.
The release of this album shortly before election day is no accident, but I'm not sure if anyone could have predicted how high-stakes this election would become when Micah wrote "Let the Boys Be Girls" two years ago. I think these songs would have been important regardless. Death of the Self-Preservation Society, the band's previous release, left us with a deft deconstruction of late-stage capitalism, zooming from macro critiques of our modern society to the sense of crippling isolation it foists upon us as individuals. The more I listen to Self-Preservation, the more I appreciate the album as a whole for its craftsmanship.
Unfortunately, the band had a bit of a Metallica moment with the album -- a lot of people just couldn't stand the mix. The good news here is that Brand New Flag was mixed by Joey Kneiser (of Glossary fame and producer of Austin Lucas's latest album.) Brand New Flag is gorgeous, and it's not just because of the content. Kneiser brings gravity to these songs, giving the album opener, "Movie," a stately grace, but allowing rockers like "Brand New Flag" and "Beauty in the Futility" to be as bold as they are live. With the addition of Todd Farrell Jr. on guitars and vocals, Kneiser does an amazing job of highlighting the band's new vocal and sonic palette.
Brand New Flag is not bashful about its political messages. Most of the time, this is what we've come to expect from Micah and Shane -- pointed barbs that cut to the quick and have a slow burn that will make you think a while. This time around, some of the songs are not quite as subtle (see "A Lullaby of Sorts" -- "So load your guns and say your prayers/Just kidding there is no God"). But overall, Brand New Flag does what it came here to do: arm us with the piss and vinegar we need to not just go out and vote but, as "History Now!" urges us, take some real time and energy into creating the world we actually deserve.
In some ways, Two Cow Garage leads by example with this album. "Lullaby" seems to cut the album in half and the band closes it out with some of their most experimental and revolutionary music to date. I wrote a while ago that "Let the Boys Be Girls," the opener of what I think of as side two, was particularly meaningful for me as one of the few obviously queer people in the crowd at a TCG show. It's one of those things that shouldn't matter but does -- when three (now four) straight (as far as I know) white guys sing about the importance of LGBT rights and women's choice, it makes a huge impact. Like M Lockwood Porter did on his album, the band is not positioning itself as an expert or the hero of these struggles: they are positioning themselves as allies, which can be hard to maneuver in a three-verse song. "Shakespeare & Walt Disney" is a tango (of all things) that points out the fallacy between Hollywood love, actual intimacy, and trying to remain true to oneself in a cultural that literally exists because of conspicuous consumption -- something I've spent the last few years trying to figure out.
The real departure here is "I Promise," which feels more like a spoken word piece than a song. It is clearly one of the performances of Micah's lifetime and, as a recording, is just amazing. In it, the narrator begins with a litany of what my therapist refers to as negative self-talk, only to cut through it by the end. But the fact is that I like to listen to music before I go to sleep or while I'm doing work and this song scares the bejeezus out of me, so it's the main reason I have not spent much time listening to the album since I got it a month ago, but I sure as hell have been thinking about it a lot for the last month -- and that's probably more important. It's worth noting that the two songs I have the most trouble with on Brand New Flag -- "Lullaby" and "I Promise" -- serve as the thematic and musical linchpins of the album. Brand New Flag may be rife with killer hooks, but this is not meant to be easy music. But neither are the solutions to the things that make us feel like this in the first place.
I may have said a lot here but I wanted to highlight one more song, even though it interrupts the flow of this review. I've written in the past that Two Cow Garage's albums have a weird way of connecting to whatever it is I particularly need to hear in the moment. I thought that "Let the Boys Be Girls" was going to be that song when I heard it live a few years ago but -- fortunately and unfortunately -- I was dead wrong. When I heard "This Little Light" this past February in Philly, I thought I was going to get down on my knees in the middle of that church basement. It recounts Micah's being robbed at gunpoint in a gas station and his dealing with the aftermath. As a survivor of assault myself, it's what I needed to hear at the moment, so I'm including it below. Not because I necessarily think it's the best song on the album (though it rates really high on my list), but because I hope that by putting it online, it can help empower someone else. Whether we're talking personal or political empowerment (and in the end, it's the same), that's what music is for.
Two Cow Garage -- Facebook, Purchase from Last Chance Records (Releases 9/14)