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Micah Schnabel and Two Cow Garage find hope in hardship

Light in the Darkness

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Don't sleep on Two Cow Garage and their frontman Micah Schnabel. While fortune's clearly a fickle bastard, even he's not so hard-hearted as to deny a band that's worked so hard for so long a little bit of the spotlight.

For a dozen years, the raucous quintet has mastered the Replacements' ne'er-do-well garage-country strut, balancing it with heartland rock rumble and an anthemic quality reminiscent of the Hold Steady. Their five albums wend with growing confidence from a country-tinged start toward a crunchy, roots-tinged underground rock sound.

Despite Schnabel's gruff croon — sounding like the illegitimate progeny of Lucero's Ben Nichols and the Replacements' Paul Westerberg — and the band's rugged, surprisingly hooky rawk, Two Cow Garage hasn't made the headway they deserve. Schnabel's hoping the band's forthcoming sixth album, Death of the Self-Preservation Society, will change that when it comes out in September.

"We've always had a hard time lining everything up — trouble with booking agents or labels or stuff like that," says Schnabel from his Columbus, Ohio, home. "But everything is lined up and everything is working in the same direction. It's been a slow build and we've built a solid fanbase behind us, but I feel we need to crack out beyond that and I'm really hoping this record will do it."

Schnabel's songs are dotted with pop culture and musical references, kind of like a Nick Hornby novel (High Fidelity, About A Boy). The song "Jackson, Don't You Worry" makes a lyrical reference to Big Star's "September Gurls," "Skinny Legged Girl" compares unsent love and hate letters for an ex to "drunken Bukowski ramblings," while "Stars & Gutters" cites On the Road and Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane," before asking "Are you growing up or are you just growing old?" They even have a song called "My Great Gatsby."

"When you're reading a book and they tell you what song is playing while whatever is going on in the book, I feel like it immediately puts the listener into the right frame of mind and just paints a picture for them," Schnabel says. "It can be as small as mentioning a song or a book you're reading, and it helps you put them into the mindset you had when you were writing the song."

As a whole, Self-Preservation Society sounds like a mash letter to every misbegotten impulse and self-destructive tendency that people have collectively lived through. While not exactly a concept album in terms of a narrative arc, it does create a milieu, with characters, phrases, and situations reappearing in much the same way as the Hold Steady. The album recalls that band's chunky Boss-biting rock strut on tracks like "Hey Cinderella," and it certainly rocks harder than they ever have in places. But it's also a delightfully eclectic disc. "Mantle in '56" is a slow-fuse blues-roots ballad, "Lost on Youth" sounds like Fountains of Wayne doing Philly soul, and the bounding, malaise-busting "Annie Get Your Guns" suggests the answer to REM's "It's the End of the World," while subtly referencing the guitar run from Big Star's "In the Street."

Two Cow Garage saved the best for last, closing with the title track. It opens with ominous, reverberating dub-guitar reminiscent of the opening to the Clash's "Know Your Rights." Over the single slashing guitar, Schnabel intones "Kiss me, I'm broken/ My house is on fire, a piano plays a loser's parade/ I've been singing it for years." The whole band comes in and the stiff-stabbing, post-punk vibe is countered with a bounding chorus full of Springsteen-ish hope: "Baby take my hand/ Run as fast as we can/ the speakers are blown and the house is burning down."

"That one came in last, right before we started recording," Schnabel says. "I really feel good about that one. I feel like it's different. There's a lot more space in it. It swings." As for the decadent, debauched subject matter, that just comes with the territory. "Maybe it's growing up Catholic, but I always gravitate to the dark side of things," he adds.

Of course, sometimes life's shadowy side sneaks up on you. That was the situation with last year's I'm Dead, Serious, Schnabel's second solo album. It's much more a country/roots-oriented record than the latest Two Cow Garage, though there are echoes of the new album's piano soul swing. The subject matter's moribund even by Schnabel's standards, with songs like the title track, "Bloodline Insanity" and "This is My Headstone," though as always, the writing's great.

"That was a hard period in my life. One of my best friends had just killed himself and I was dealing with being 30 years old and really talking a look at mortality and coming to grips with all that," Schnabel says. "Writing songs is my therapy. It's how I get through things. It's called I'm Dead, Serious for a reason. It was a dark time."

It's an album of bad luck and foolish choices. "Rarely does anybody know they're making bad decisions when they're happening, but you can look back at it and watch yourself falling down the well," he says.

Schnabel is happier these days, and he's proud of the forthcoming Two Cow album. In fact, he promises to give Charleston a taste, even though he's here without his band. "I'm going to be playing 50-50 Two Cow and solo songs. And I'll be doing two or three of the brand new ones," Schnabel says. "Just to keep myself sane I have to play some of the new stuff."

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