Cover bands are usually written off as nostalgia-mongering hacks. Although critics and "all-originals" bands scoff at them, they earn steady money by filling dance floors at company Christmas parties and clubs that cater to the TGIF crowd. We assume these bands are cynical, trudging through serviceable reproductions of hits they never really liked for the sake of a paycheck. Of course, this attitude is unfair to many cover bands -- bands such as the Detroit Cobras, who play hook-filled R&B obscurities because they know they'll never write songs as good themselves. And why should they insist on trying? Why not introduce a new audience to these shoulda-been-classics instead? Hardcore soul collectors may know "I'm Laughing at You" by the Gardenias and "Right Around the Corner" by the "5" Royales, but the rest of us don't. (Unfortunately, the error-filled liner notes found here won't help us find the originals anytime soon.) In any case, the Cobras aren't just a band with a good record collection.
Singer Rachel Nagy, more Ronnie-rough than Aretha-strong, chooses nuance over volume on Life Love and Leaving. She's been listening closely to Irma Thomas, perfecting that little tremble at the end of each phrase in "Cry On." She also snarls through swaggering tracks by Ike Turner, Solomon Burke and Otis Redding with an authority that justifies the decision to change the title of Davis Jones and the Fenders' "Boss With the Hot Sauce" to "Boss Lady." The call-and-response chorus in the opener, Mickey Lee Lane's "Hey Sah-Lo-Ney" (inexplicably listed as "Hey Sailor"), would be stuck in your head permanently if it weren't followed by "He Did It," a pre-Spector Ronettes single featuring soaring vocals over sha-la-las straight from heaven. But the high point of the album is "Right Around the Corner"; Nagy's gender-switching makes the double-entendres as meaningless as the yaki-taki-oo-ah! chorus, while the band raves on.
This lineup is the fifth incarnation of the Detroit Cobras. Like Nagy, all the members know that simple turns of phrase are more effective than flash. You may not notice the subtle organ and piano touches the first dozen times you listen to Life, Love and Leaving, but that instrumental savvy is what makes the Cobras more than musical re-enactors. Soul, not nostalgia, defines this record.