Tempting as it'd be to do so, one can't judge Chicago octet Cougars based solely on peripheral factors. Add 'em up and try not to gag: They're signed to Go Kart Records, home to marginal lightweight goofs like Weston, the Parasites, Boris the Sprinkler and the Candy Snatchers; they saddle songs with sophomoric titles like 'There's No 'High' in Teamâ?�; their new album is housed in grainy, Norman Rockwell-spoofing artwork.
Talk about a book that spites and spits on its cover: Pillow Talk is taut and ripped and wouldn't have been out of place on the '90s roster of Touch & Go Records. Forged iron-hard, Cougars sound like a less-imposing, less-demonic Jesus Lizard who've bullied a ska band's horn section into backing up their tempered tantrums. Singer Matthew Irie gnaws through these furies as though the audience is complicit in his difficulties and could, perhaps, assuage his anguish or provide assistance: Every time he bellows 'Who's got the sniff?â?� on the accordingly titled track, one feels compelled to help him find it despite not holding or knowing anyone who is. Worse still, when he angrily asserts, amidst pilings of electric blues riffs on 'Shitstorm,â?� that 'I'm walking through a shitstorm, baby/Your shit is driving me crazy/And I can't hold on,â?� pangs of guilt fly.
On paper, the combined force of saxophone, trumpet and synths shouldn't jell with Irie's manic outbursts, the beefy, low-note guitars (similar to those employed by Pillow Talk co-producer Steve Albini on Shellac's infrequent albums) of two guitarists, and the drummer's premium thump. With all that going on, the overall effect should be more comedic than commanding. But Cougars' united front never comes off as a joke, as blaring horns and flickering keys lend pop and heft to this piss party, setting these guys apart from their largely forgotten Chi-town forebears.
(Cougars appear with History, 6 p.m. Friday at Will's Pub, 407-898-5070)