Cousteau is a hopelessly romantic, refined act whose musical aesthetic comes from the territories where the most sensually enticing, emotionally wrenching elements of Bryan Ferry, David Bowie, Scott Walker, Nick Cave, Jackie Leven, and even Tom Waits come together to reminisce, drink cognac, and weep. On the band's debut, sheer pop invention and brash, over-the-top, emotive delivery carried the swagger to the masses, selling 150,000 copies aided by relentless touring. Sirena stands the chance of moving past that mark on the strength of its pure musical craft and emotional commitment to the material, as well as relentless touring. Sirena is a strange record, albeit a completely accessible one. As full of oceanic imagery as its title, songwriter, keyboardist, and producer Davey Ray Moor crafts hedonistically elegant pop songs that echo the lushness of Walker's early Phillips material with a more direct lyrical delivery, courtesy of frontman Liam McKahey's original and steamily passionate singing. Songs like "Salome" feature a muted horn section that swirls around lilting strings in a breezy jazz and bossa nova cadence. McKahey sings without irony or affectation, "Salome, between us, the love we make/has become the hunted kind/And I recall, my surrender/I saw you dancing barefoot in the garbage and the leaves/We were small, worn and tender/Salome, the games we played/Woke the dogs who prey on me...Salome maybe between you and me we made some mystery...whatever will become of me." The horns swell, a harmonica enters winding around them in the dusty, dimly lit back corner of the mix, and the lyric wraps it's lithe arms around the listener's neck seductively, slipping down the back and into her or his pockets, only to vanish into the night with its contents -- the human heart. Such romantic melancholy is not only a method for getting a lyric and musical arrangement across, it is a way of communicating directly in images and metaphors that are not the everyday tropes of Anglo-Brit love song fodder. If Moor were a little less jaded, he might be Neil Finn; if he were a bit more ruined, he might be Nick Cave. As it stands, he's himself, using jazz, precisely elegant and luxurious pop, and the right amount of rock & roll swagger to craft his gloriously broken narratives of love, lust, spilt whiskey, and loss. On "Please Don't Cry," McKahey croons in a near falsetto like a soul singer his intention to leave his beloved, feeling every bit of the pain the separation will exact. Moor's keyboards engage Robin Brown's guitars, dropping the heartbreak like a dirty rain on the ears of the listener. On the Steely Dan-tinged electric piano and snare drum riff in "Heavy Weather," McKahey begins in a falsetto and drops into his deep baritone to ask "Where you been lately/You used to light up the streets with your style/I've been here waiting/For less than a year, but more than a while/How well I remember, it's always a theme park taught tales and true/Time built of ribbons, of little girl dreams/tattered and strewn/There's been some heavy, heavy weather lately baby/But will you tell me the news...I've got one photo/That's keepin' me fond of who you might be/it shows some notion like someone I've known much better than me..." Guitars shimmer down in crescendos matched by a slippery 4/4 with tightly wound basslines and Moor's keyboard lines peppering the refrains with enough dimension to keep the mood jazzy and light amid the near-suffocating juxtaposition of past and present regret in the lyric. This is what Cousteau do best, their unabashedly romantic sensibility allows rack and ruin the same mantle as bliss and ecstasy, making them all part of the same silky yet torn patchwork quilt. If bits and traces of Love & Money, Steely Dan, Everything But the Girl, and the aforementioned songwriters wend their way through Sirena, it's to the complement of Cousteau's vision of pop. They've managed to tap into the same sources and muses those artists have; they've kept their lyrical and musical vision streamlined while remaining open to the various depths pop can lead the listener toward when created with precision, artful clarity, and artistic commitment. That said, it's a safe and unfortunate bet the majority of Sirena's sales would be in non-English speaking countries. There is an Anglophile fear of lyrics as naked and searing as Moor's, especially when their delivery, via McKahey, offers a
protagonist that is the fairy tale version of the "hard man" reversed: He's still standing but barely; he's rent with heart-shaped wounds and praying, even begging, for release. They are masculine, to be sure, but the grain in the singer's voice suggests a vulnerability that lies outside accetable gernally male -- and particularly heterosexual -- archteypal paradigms. Here in America, the majority like their emotions packaged neatly, dividing all of the necessary emotional states into neat boxes, and men need either to be "real" men, or fey. There seems to be little room for the kind of opaque complexity, and deeply sensual clarity a band like Cousteau is capable of putting across seemingly at will. Make no mistake, Sirena is adult music made by adults who understand that everything in life is messy and that pop music, at its best, can only hope to convey the contradictions as nakedly -- and gorgeously -- as possible. Thank goodness for Cousteau and Sirena -- god only knows we need them in this dark age.