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From 192 mph to cruising speed and back again

If you want more rock in your alt country, there’s not better disc to grab than Two Cow Garage’s “III.” By Rob Neill

Is there even alternative country any more? Wilco is now making almost all-ballad records, Son Volt has horns, the Drive-By Truckers are channeling the Faces, and Centromatic seems more atmospheric with each album.

Which isn’t necessarily bad (OK, it’s just not at all). But the new breed isn’t any more traditional. Two Cow Garage are countryish rock, but as one reviewer of their second record noted “even if occasional hints of Led Zepplin and (yes) Quiet Riot sneak into the mix.”

“Yeah, that may be there,” says TCG guitarist and vocalist Micah Schnabel, laughing a bit.

So what does TCG sound like?

He tries to cough out an answer three times, ending with an expletive.

“I don’t know,” he finally offers, laughing some more. “Probably a John-Cougar-Mellencamp-fronting-Nirvana thing. But I don’t know, that may be way off base.”

Actually, pretty spot-on. They will get lumped in with the No Depression crowd, and the fans who actually like the alternative more than the country will love them — or should. But where other bands will accent the South and West (whether from there or not) with pedal steel and drawls, TGC is Rust-Belt Midwest. Their most rocking songs sound contemporary enough, but parts of them could easily be blasting out of a Camaro as the ’70s turned into the ’80s.

Not like Schnabel or bandmates Dustin Harigle (drums) and Shane Sweeney (bass) would know. Schnabel was 19 when the band released their first album “Please Turn the Gas Back On” in 2003. The record was noticeable for the ferocity of the playing, if not a particularly unusual set of influences: The Replacements, Uncle Tupelo and Slobberbone. The second, “The Wall Against Our Backs,” (produced by Slobberbone frontman  Brent Best) was more of the same.

But out this week is their best yet, and if you’re going to have enough arena rock influences what do you have to name your third record? “III” of course.

(That’s three in Roman Numerals. With bands naming themselves these days you really can’t explain too much lately.)

“III” is a rock record. But if, as Sweeney would describe their previous records as “everything going 190 mph,” “III” does, sometimes shift down to fourth and occasionally there is even a calming idle.

“We’re still going to play the rock,” Schnabel, the kind of guy who always seems to be having a good day, says. But when they were writing for the record, “I felt myself kind of rewriting the same songs from the records before. And I think we feel like we have to write those kinds of songs. And I was just like ‘The hell with that. I’ll just write it up, bring it to the band and see how it goes.’ Everybody did that. I think we didn’t want to write ourselves into a corner where we were writing the same songs for the third record. I think this record kind of lengthened our future. We can write any kind of song we want now.”

Which explains the ballads “Should’ve California,” “Arson” and “Postcards and Apologies.” And especially the head-bobbing piano-and-horn-drenched “Mediocre” with Sweeney crooning when he’s not screaming. Or the reflective, meditative, end of “Blanket Gray.”

Make no mistake, this is a big rock record. “Return to Shelby” opens the album with an insistent, slightly sinister riff that sets the tone. “Now I Know” is the angry, loud cousin of Uncle Tupelo’s “We’ve Been Had.” “Gape & Shudder” is the aforementioned 190 mph, with possibly another gear added. Shouted choruses. Two-fisted drumming. Music you can jump to, but can’t possibly dance to. And you can’t clap, because where will you put your beer?

Mature is the wrong adjective — in the context of this kind of music it cold be viewed as an insult. But this isn’t a band content to make the same record over again, no matter how good the first two were. In fact a fan of the first two might not believe how well “III” turned out.

“You know, I don’t think we did either,” Schnabel says. “We’ve been guts and glory so long, when we tried to do something different live we were — well I don’t know. But it was pretty cool to watch it all happen (while making the record).”

The band will be touring the country to support the record staring this week. Where doesn’t matter, based on their past month-on-end itineraries. If the band is renown for anything, it’s their passionate, draining, full-on live performance.

“We’ve played backyards in New Jersey, we’ve played gumbo shacks in Alabama, we’ll play anywhere that people want to listen,” Schnabel says.

“We don’t even make set lists really any more. We just go up and gauge how the club is and how the crowd — if there is one — is and kind of play it by ear. It’s kind of like playing a sport. You just give 100 percent of what you have when you are on the field,” Sweeney says.

They’ve probably got plenty of pent-up energy. Recording on “III” was finished last August. Due to music business shenanigans, it’s been on the shelf until reaching stores this week.

“Frustrating,” Sweeney says. “When we’re on the road we’re doing our job. When we’re not it’s almost like a useless feeling.”

Schnabel adds the band will be bringing the same old energy.

“I was talking to someone the other day and they were like ‘Why do you (perform like) that?’ And I told em ‘Man, because it’s fun. That’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was 15.’”

“There’s a lot of shoegazing and, I don’t know pompous poseur (stuff) going on. Like everybody feels the need to be super cool. We’re not cool.”

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