Review: Cousin Boneless – “Possession”

When they talked about making a transformation, they were talking about an ALL CAPS TRANSFORMATION.

On last year’s Revel In The Rubble, the final installment in a “garbage parties” trilogy, Pittsburgh’s Cousin Boneless plied its bizarre and infinitely unique form of freak folk – think a mélange of antique-garde musings, Andrew Bird ambition, and the theatricality of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. The stuff was intoxicating, if you could get your little head around it: rapidly picked banjo and thumping upright-bass accompanying washboard-percussion, a musical saw, and vocals that were barked more often than sung.

But the 4th River Music Collective members wanted to kick up their game. And so we have Possession, out June 7 via All We’ve Got Records, which sees the group concocting a more fleshed-out, full-band sound. What does that mean for a group of derelicts like Cousin Boneless? Well, for one, it’s louder – and makes the “plugging in” of milquetoasts like Mumford & Sons look appear utterly flaccid. And it incorporates, for the first time for these guys, real elements of hardcore punk; though more “traditional” approaches still exist, they are paired with segments that, for lack of a better phrase, could be dubbed Appalachian thrash.

And – oh, yes. It. Is. Good.

“Pretty Cemetery,” a song the group previewed on Bandcamp recently, is a good indication of the 12-song LP’s maddening methods – the track, just two minutes long if you can believe it, throttles between punk blasts with horns and mathy banjo descents, all while your boneless cousins lament the state of the world circa 2018. “Apocolypto” strikes a similar chord, starting with thrashing abandon before launching into a Gypsy lament that alternately calls to mind early Firewater and early 00s Cerberus Shoal.

The opener, “Nithing Pole,” is a moody gem, a kind of hybrid of Eastern European folk and something menacing but indescribable. (When it erupts, it ERUPTS. But the real juiciness comes when the band breaks down the tumultuousness and returns to lament – shades of Thee Silver Mt. Zion chorale.) The perky “Social Ghost” skanks, and is, oddly, not that out-of-place. “Pointed You,” even incorporates elements of hip-hop – a first, I’d imagine, for a band featuring musical saw – to great effect. Through and throughout, it’s penetrating stuff.

Some of the most effective material on the record, though, aren’t the eruptions – though those are truly delicious – but the valleys between peaks. “Property,” which falls near the record’s halfway mark, opens with Curtis Eller-like banjo-isms before expanding with accordion and organ leads, and some epic caterwaul-weeping from dueling violins. “Satyr’s Crown” features some excellent, chopped-up  textures and a spot-on build-up to the finale.

The closing title track, a reprise, constructs a spine-narrative of haunted-house piano and amuses itself with a kind of slithery-ness that feels like a horror film score. The band follows suit, with each instrument adding atmosphere if not traditional structure and color. They don’t thrash on the last song, but the darkness remains – reminding you, as ever, that this is not a band with which you should tamper. – Justin Vellucci, Punksburgh, June 1, 2018

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