Everyone wants to be a singing star—even those with no demonstrable talent. But Rachel Nagy took some convincing. The voice of the Detroit Cobras sounds like a natural, reanimating the eternal language of Boogaloo and Shake, Slop, Twist and Madison with a conviction that mashes up dance floor and bedroom into one super-rockin' thang. The Cobras stand out with an ultra-revved early-Stones gift for swing—and a core of Nagy and rhythm guitarist Mary Restrepo riding herd over a revolving cast of male players.
Nagy and Restrepo became friends in their late teens. When the guitarist suggested that Nagy front the nascent Cobras— "I knew all the songs"—she balked. "It just seemed like a really stupid idea to me. I don't know, I was always there, and they always had lots of beer to coax me with. Mary always says it was just convenient 'cause she always had to step over me anyway on the way to the bathroom." Despite a burgeoning career, Nagy admits that she's only recently "gotten OK" with hearing her voice.
With a repertoire drawn from the likes of Solomon Burke, Ike and Tina Turner, and the "5" Royales, the Cobras' stellar discography is highlighted by two albums on Sympathy for the Record Industry. Mink Rat or Rabbit and Life, Love and Leaving are dance-party classics, particularly the latter's version of Mickey Lea Lane's "Hey Sah-Lo-Ney," impishly rechristened "Hey Sailor." Nagy's ballad readings (Clyde McPhatter's "Let's Forget About the Past," Ronnie Mack's "Cry On") bring an occasionally torchy element to the records.
That dimension grew on the band's follow-up releases for U.K. label Rough Trade. The Seven Easy Pieces EP (2003) offered a real change of pace with "Insane Asylum," an eerie Koko Taylor/Willie Dixon blues that Nagy used to sing in her car before she ever considered a musical career. With duet partner and sometime bandmate Greg Cartwright (also in tour opener Reigning Sound) set to tour with the Cobras in the fall, Nagy's looking forward to her inaugural live versions of the tune—"Not for every show, but every here and there, when we feel spooky."
Last year's Baby, including the first recorded Cobras original, "Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)," is out now on Chicago's Bloodshot label, with Seven and a video for the British single "Cha Cha Twist" appended. The band rerecorded the number (originally on Mink) following its inclusion in an English Coca-Cola ad. Nagy sees the tie-in as an example of the Cobras' no-sweat business philosophy—"That's a good case in point of things coming to us. Somebody in the ad agency or whatever knew us, liked the song, and pitched it to them"—as well as an opportunity.
"We have no problem—I drink Coke, I drink beer. I smoke cigarettes. I'm still waitin' for a cigarette endorsement. Every picture you see of me, there's a Camel in my mouth or my hand. It's like, come on, people, let's catch on here! I don't even need money. Just send me a carton a month, we'll be fine."
Nagy figures the low-key approach to career (a booking agent, no manager) has worked out fine. "I've gotten to go places that I never thought I would. I've gotten to meet people. I've gotten to hear music that I probably would've never heard. The world is our record collection now. It's so cool. The more places we go, the more places we play, people just give us more and more music. It's a great thing to be a girl singer, 'cause you still have boys tryin' to impress you 'cause of their knowledge of music."
The Cobras have even made fans of some of their cover subjects—notably Jackie DeShannon. The veteran singer-songwriter approached the group after a Hollywood Knitting Factory show, praising their version of her "He Did It" (previously cut by the pre-Spector Ronettes) and "Breakaway" (by soul legend Irma Thomas, a favorite of Nagy and Restrepo). "We fell on the floor. 'Can we wash your hair?!' She's just laughin': 'Get up!' 'We can't!'"
A joint writing session followed, with a maxi-single of new Cobras/DeShannon songs a possibility. "I just fell in love with them," DeShannon says. "I think they're different in the sense that they have a strong presence; they know what they wanna do, and they stay with it. They don't seem to be pressured by outside influences."
Nagy recalls a free show in notoriously dance-resistant indie-rock Seattle. "They're kind of buttoned up, straitlaced, and then—yeah, they were just cuttin' a rug, havin' a good time. That's the best feeling in the world, 'cause that's the kind of band we are. We're not a hipster band;you're not supposed to sit against the wall and analyze it. Find a pretty girl and hopefully you get laid that night, and if not, at least go home sweaty and tired."
The Detroit Cobras play Chop Suey with the Reigning Sound and the Cops at 8 p.m. Tues., Nov. 8. $10 adv.