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Coughs - Secret Passage

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Artist: Coughs

Album: Secret Passage

Label: Load

Review date: Oct. 1, 2006

Once upon a time, Chicago, Illinois(e), was at the headwaters of a rancid stream of aural cess. For proof, see Skin Graft Records' roster of local heroes and "now wave" sloganeering back in the 1990s. And even earlier, though slightly further above the horizon: Big Black and Jesus Lizard hailed from the Windy City, right? End of discussion, really.

Now that those repeat offenders of yesteryear have either moved on to greener pastures or fallen silent altogether, along comes Coughs to pick up the smoldering torch for another run. In general, their soph effort finds the Chicago sextet as having distilled the out-and-out scrapyard frenzy of their 2004 debut Fright Makes Right into a strain of noise rock that seizes in grubby hand the brass ring that California's Sharkbait might have done well to aim for in their day.

Coughs has honed a vernacular of alien sonics all its own, wrested from typically "rock" instrumentation as saxophone, keyboards, bass, guitar and – at its core – percussionists Seth Sher and Jon Ziemba, who come packing 55-gallon oil barrels. But in Coughs, really, everything functions as a rhythm instrument: Whether it be the nearly amorphous depth charges of bass guitar, the reed-splintering, honking alto, the guitar that klaxons and bleeps, uninformed by chords and phrases of any tonality (and often reduced to a hissing, HVAC-unit rumble), or the percussion itself, which borders on drum-and-bugle-corps precision and intensity. Indeed, from the sounds of it there may have been at least one high school marching band season on the CVs of percussionists Seth Sher and Jon Ziemba. The dual battery is at its most effective when locked into the caveman house music groove of "Ditch that Zero,” augmented with Vanessa Harris' busy-tone guitar. Or, throughout the lopsided skitter of "Happy Harvest," with its western bhangra pisstake as arranged for a washing machine full of socket wrenches. The band precursors the Neubauten klangfest of “Quagmire” with a rachety rollercoaster climb in unison before teetering off into a flabby free sax-driven bash.

And let the record show (believe me, it does) that convulsive frontwoman Anya Davidson possesses the most unfeminine voice in all of rock. She's changed her approach since Fright, having affected a disturbing preteen boy-bark that, one would hope, is less strenuous on the vocal cords than her past bloodcurdlingness. An approximation: Think of what the fat ruddy-faced fourth-grade schoolyard bully would sound like as his small intestine is wound around a stick. That said, she doesn't sit out on "Fencing,” the record's one and only real concession to melody, wherein she traces out an actual hook of sorts, cosigned by a listless sax line atop the cyclical scrap metal churn/shopping cart slalom of the Sher/Ziemba turbine.

By no means have Coughs turned prematurely mature, but Secret Passage finds them perhaps less wildly enthralled with the initial novelty of their own instrumental approaches, and more concerned with developing intricate arrangements and furthering their rhythmic discipline. Those who pine for Clinton-era Chi-town blast are advised to listen with extreme prejudice: Coughs suggest that there may be a few untapped veins of post "now-wave" gold left yet.

By Adam MacGregor

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