On Saturday, April 19th (you know the day), garage rock duo Cousinsplayed a modest and killer set to an appreciative crowd of locals at Halifax’s Taz Records. Cornered by walls of LPs and restricted to a performance area that couldn’t have been much larger than a small bathroom, guitarist Aaron Mangle and drummer Leigh Dotey (both have vocal contributions) powered through a short set of songs from their new full-length, The Halls of Wickwire. A record store was far from the ideal environment for the band, known around the Canadian underground for their raw, engaging performances; and yet, lit overhead by fluorescent bulbs and surrounded by the chatter of those unfamiliar with their music, Cousins turned in an immensely enjoyable half-hour set of melodic, fuzzed-out tunes. It was a perfect exercise in simplicity and as good of a reminder of the numerous strengths of one of Canada’s most underrated bands.
Before I go too far with this simplicity narrative, I feel that I should mention that Mangle and Dotey’s relatively straightforward approach and set-up do not entirely account for why Cousins is such an excellent band; a back-to-basics mentality is not a novelty, power chords are not always the easy way out, and their status as a guitar and drums duo is far from a shtick. However, in a music culture where artists with winding back stories are sprouting up quicker than ever and Morrissey headlines are as abundant as guitar bands themselves, Cousins’ lack of complication is totally refreshing and offers an easy entry point for discussions surrounding their music.
So, to the music itself: Cousins have spent the past several years fine-tuning their recipe for hard-hitting and evocative garage rock, steadily putting out releases that all keep their signature sound intact while never feeling calculated. The Halls of Wickwire is, in almost every regard, their strongest record yet: the melodies are catchy and beautifully sung and the production is crisp, retaining all of Mangle’s soaring vocal and gritty guitar tones while removing the haze that clouded previous Cousins releases. Dotey is as reliable as ever on her kit, bringing energy to even the album’s quietest moments and driving home the anthems “Body” and “Mess.” On paper, this probably sounds pretty unremarkable, and I know that it might sound like I’m completely overselling a fairly typical indie rock outfit. But the Cousins described in this reflection and the Cousins that I know and love will never be the same; this is a special band and The Halls of Wickwire is a special record, for reasons that can’t all be easily summarized by words on a page.
For a listener, there is a lot of material to unpack here: these songs were written and recorded in late 2012, as Mangle lost his grandmother, both metaphorically and physically, to chronic dementia and old age. Mangle has noted that he “didn’t want to write anything that was trite,” but he still wanted to use this album as an outlet to explore the changes in their relationship as her mental state deteriorated, and conversations that the two shared and the writing that Mangle’s sister was doing around the same topic provided inspiration for many of the lyrics on this record. This is especially apparent on the pensive “At Odds” and in the repetitive mantra of “Alone”: “No one should be alone” may be lyrically simple, but given such a context those five words carry much heavier emotional connotations.
And yet, I immediately connected with The Halls of Wickwire long before I knew the story of its creation. Sure, there are broader themes that resonate from Mangle’s experience that lend this album a broader emotional accessibility, but even beyond that, I feel a certain euphoria every time that I listen to Cousins’ music. Aaron Mangle and Leigh Dotey are not only band mates, but best friends as well, and the chemistry that exists between them as musicians as a result is just short of magical. Watch a few live videos of theirs and I hope you’ll see what I’m talking about: it’s in their eye contact, their warmth, their smiles, their openness to a crowd. Hearing this album, all I can think about is the pair of friends that I saw making huge, beautiful noise at a cramped Taz Records last month. Every time that Mangle and Dotey grinned at each other, I smiled too; when they giggled, I felt like I knew exactly what they were laughing about. Sitting in my bedroom with The Halls of Wickwire spinning behind me, I still can’t wipe that smile from my face. Listen to Cousins. It’s good for you.