Memory Motel: Diving for Cousteau
The greatest British band most Americans never heard
The first thing you heard was that cool, classy riff, an overt homage to every Burt Bacharach signature flugelhorn hook of the '60s, gliding atop a framework too taut to be dubbed "lounge" but certainly no more than a second cousin of anything in the rock & roll realm. Then came the voice, sounding like vintage Scott Walker mixed with a dash of David Bowie (i.e. deeper and richer than a 14-layer chocolate cake) and belonging to a displaced Irishman by the name of Liam McKahey. As the breezy, burnished, almost-ballad swayed into earshot, the strikingly sophisticated, undeniably '60s-pop-influenced songcraft of keyboardist Davey Ray Moor came sharply into focus as well. The year was 2000, the song was "The Last Good Day of the Year," and the band was called Cousteau.
The British quintet had initially released its self-titled debut album on a small label in 1999, but it was subsequently picked up by Island exec Chris Blackwell for reissue on his Palm Pictures imprint the following year. The record evoked a world where smartly dressed gents tipped snifters of brandy amid a swirl of primary-colored pop-art posters, velvet-upholstered furniture, and elegantly outfitted ladies bearing an uncanny resemblance to Francoise Hardy circa 1965 (and this was seven years before Mad Men). Moor had an uncanny knack for a Bacharach-esque refrain, and McKahey brought all the vocal ballast the reedy-voiced keyboardist probably heard in his head but couldn't conjure with his own comparatively paltry pipes. The rest of the band gave enough of a contemporary edge to the proceedings to keep Cousteau from sinking into the ocean of pomo-retro lounge lizards whose brief window of popularity was already pretty well faded by that point. They were the first great U.K. band of the 21st century.
In Europe, Cousteau met with a measure of success. Their songs were used for movies and TV, the group's two albums (Cousteau was followed by Sirena in 2002) were embraced by the BBC, and the group played its share of high-profile opening slots, festival spots, and the like. In America, historically less susceptible to music crafted with class and subtlety, critics were predictably impressed, but broad-based popularity of the kind Cousteau enjoyed on the continent proved a tougher nut to crack. For reasons unclear, Moor decided to ditch the band sometime after their second trip to the U.S., going on to produce and write for other artists and release a 2005 solo album, Telepathy.
Just as it quickly became clear upon listening to Telepathy that Moor couldn't replicate the Cousteau magic without his former bandmates, so too did the contemporaneous third and final Cousteau album, Nova Scotia - written and recorded sans Moor - come off like a pale shadow of the group's former glories. A true collective, Cousteau could only function properly when all its parts were in place. For his part, McKahey - who became a crooner without a band when Cousteau finally called it quits after Nova Scotia - relocated to Australia, leading a group called The Bodies.
At various points over the years, everyone from Marc Almond to Tindersticks has leapt into the Lee Hazlewood/Scott Walker/Bill Medley mid-'60s art-pop mode with varying degrees of success. But only Cousteau, during their brief but brilliant run, ever truly succeeding in crafting tunes that actually had the panache of the aforementioned milieu, as opposed to simply plotting out a pastiche of that singular aesthetic. Don't mourn Cousteau's disappearance; be thankful they were ever here at all.
|The Last Good Day of the Year|
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