Liz Cooper & the Stampede
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Liz Cooper and the Stampede’s debut full length would be, at least based on their moniker, a rip-snorting, galloping, rollicking, rockabilly rush. The group’s tee-shirts with an image of wild horses errr, stampeding, promotes that too.
So, it’s a surprise to push play and hear the dreamy “Sleepyhead” with its lyric of “Wake on up sleepyheads/ you can sleep when you’re dead” sung with drowsy authority. It’s an unusual, reticent manner to open, but sets the disc’s deliberate vibe and tone, which is a far cry from the sprinting image Cooper’s group tag implies. Thankfully, it’s much, much better.
Cooper is an insightful, reflective, poignant, and occasionally dryly humorous singer/songwriter/guitarist and her two-piece “stampede” backing unit follows that lead. The album adds discreet keyboards and some supporting players but there is no denying the bluesy/psychedelic groove generated on tracks like “Lights,” and the following pulsing rhythm of “Hey Man.” It’s especially evident on the seven-plus minutes of “Dalai Lama,” the longest and most riveting tune. It incorporates an improvised and intense middle section that surges in power as it progresses. Potent lyrics of “Can I find a way out of my abstract mind/ Jesus and the pills never coincide/ kicking me while I’m down” may or may not be autobiographical.
Cooper wrings tough, sinewy tones from her guitar, whether she’s shooting out riffs, jamming around jazzy chords or finger-picking sweet circular acoustic lines on the closing solo “Walls of White.” She’s not showy but uses her skills with taste and class to push these songs forward. Her understated instrumental touch and sensitivity defines a sound that gradually congeals as the album progresses.
Vocally she falls somewhere between Billie Holiday, Eilen Jewell and Amy LaVere, hanging onto words and extending them, altering enunciation while singing with low-key passion. Her subtly sweet/scratchy approach is unique and often hypnotic in a relaxed, edgy way. But it’s how the musicians effortlessly lock together on selections like the wistful “Kaleidoscope Eyes” (“Is this a dream or am I just looking through the cracks of my mind?”) and the pensive “The Night,” the latter a celebration of dancing with its singalong chorus of “sadness, pain, and hatred/ dance it all away.” The meditative “Mountain Man,” the album’s early focus track, has Cooper imagining growing old and living happily with the titular character in what seems to be a tender love ballad. That is brought into question though after watching the video which flips the tune’s meaning on its side, implying the mountain man is gay as she watches her future play out through virtual reality.
Ultimately, this grows on you through repeated plays. Artfully sequenced, Cooper and her players create music that weaves, floats and occasionally dive-bombs into your psyche, sticking there until you realize this is something special. It’s an auspicious, slow-burn introduction to an artist with a vision, one we hope to hear more from.
Ignore the somewhat misleading band name, mount up and ride along.