In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs with prominent harmonica usage.
When bands known more for hard-charging noise than toe-tapping hooks compose a song full of bright chords and smooth edges, it often goes one of two ways. In the first instance, the song turns out to be a bizarre exception to the group’s catalog, an oddball stand-alone in a body of work characterized by a very different sound. (“Pepper” by the Butthole Surfers being a good example of this kind of diversion.) In the second case, the song turns out to presage a brand-new chapter of an artist’s career, the tipping point in a steady progression away from more rocking early material, and toward a more accessible sound. (In glossy pop terms, this is known as the “Iris” transition.)
However, a third option is arguably the most intriguing: instances where a group writes a catchy, hook-filled song that wouldn’t sound out of place among much poppier acts, yet still retains so much of the performer’s identity and musical DNA that it sits comfortably within the overall discography. It’s a difficult balancing act, but when it succeeds, it’s a marvelous threading of the noisy needle. On Cunning Stunts, the fifth album from the chaotic Minneapolis rock quartet Cows, the band made a notable effort to produce a more polished product, but it mostly consisted of better production values and songwriting that deepened the intensity of the group’s work, rather than smoothing it out. The exception to that description is “Mr. Cancelled,” a bluesy slice of hummable midtempo rock that comes eerily close to a Southern pop radio station’s target sound. Cows were always wilder in composition and execution than they were in arrangements—the vast majority of their songs stick to a simple verse-chorus-verse format—but “Mr. Cancelled” is downright amiable.
The centerpiece of the track is a harmonica solo from singer Shannon Selberg, who ditched his regular (and more unusual, for rock) instrument, a bugle, in favor of the reed wind standard-bearer for folksy Americana. He plays it surprisingly well; it doesn’t feel like a stunt—even a cunning one—so much as the natural weapon of choice for such a down-home melody. But it doesn’t feel out of place in the group’s musical output. There was always an element of bar-band simplicity in Cows’ manic melodies and frenetic live performances. “Mr. Cancelled” just manages the rare feat of placing that aspect front and center, rather than an inviting background vibe, in the music. It was definitive evidence the band could deliver more mainstream fare without losing the heart of its freewheeling spirit. You still felt as though anything could happen; but that “anything” now included the potential for a song your dad might like, too.