Jeff Cowell’s rollicking sophomore effort Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold, was self-released in 1975 as a follow-up to his debut effort Plaint, also released that year. Until this February, Lucky Strikes’ ten alluring tracks were coveted by a relatively sequestered audience among the unscathed hinterlands and poorly lit country-western bars of his native Michigan. The time accumulated since Jeff Cowell recorded this album in Chicago’s now-defunct Snail 16 Track Studio has only saturated and nourished these songs for a new, auxiliary audience. His brilliant reintroduction, a venerable triumph salvaged from dilapidated pastimes, inspires hope and resilience for lost, neglected sounds.
It’s difficult to think this loose-lipped, daring singer-songwriter had any towering expectations for the record’s distribution. To self-release an album in 1975 was an incredibly audacious and high-stakes move, a world apart from the modern ubiquity of internet-mongering, DIY dissemination. Still, Jeff Cowell finds deep satisfaction in this personal and self-confronting musical statement, mosaicked from blues-soaked prog rock, rockabilly and gospel-tinged soul. On the title track, when he sings over placid guitar chords, “Take me down on my knees/ I’m beggin’ for some quick relief,” it’s desperate, imploring to be understood and pleading to be realized. He’s had a fight with his woman and he’s umpteen drinks in, trying to rise above the suffocating loneliness that hangs harsh and heavy on this record.
The isolation conveyed on Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold is striking in its frankness (“Lots of people they come to me saying/ What you doin’ way the heck out here”), but it’s most clearly defined on album opener “Jake Lake,” which features “a sad old man” ruined by a physical distance from reality and a cerebral distance from sobriety. A pedal steel guitar shifts and shimmies taut and tender as an electric Rhodes piano plods with sticky precision. Our narrator isn’t quite explicit about signifying this “drunken pumpkin humpin’ somethin’” as a harrowing projection of his own likely future, but the detailed derision isn’t enough to convince otherwise. Similarly off-color visions are illustrated on closing number “Not Down This Low,” far from bothered at potentially alienating listeners as he confesses, “I’ve got a family I had to leave way up north/ I hope they think I’m dead but down this low.” These two bookended tracks, the most strict and straightforward country tunes present, are easily the most quirky and convoluted.
Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold is obsessed with the place and placelessness of a restless soul. Cowell’s lyrical imagery, uncanny its lurid effectiveness, transports the listener on tracks like the organ-adorned “We All Know.” He lets out a solemn, exasperated sigh before singing, “Rolling down that steel highway, now I’m on a mountaintop/ Your shadow’s riding right beside me, and the blue sky never stops.” Drifting like a disembodied specter, Cowell is neither here nor there: (“And when I’m going yes no I’m leavin’/ And I’m never really ever gonna leave at all”). The only thing that seems to tether his wayfaring predilections is devotion for his woman (“You don’t know what it’s like to love you like I do”), but even this intimacy proves unsteady (“It’s not just for you that I’m living/ It’s also for this mother soil”).
Jeff’s gospel says death is an obstacle, a mere stepping stone and, most importantly, hopelessly irrelevant to the lives we lead. For him it’s all about the in-between, the movement, the journey, because once we get where we’re going, all we’ll remember is the how and not the why. Cowell bellows plaintive verses, sometimes meticulous and delicately, reserving his superlative performance for the only track where the songwriter isn’t accompanied by other musicians. It’s just him and his guitar on “Joanne & Jason”: a desolate and endlessly bewildering two-minute track. When he sings the line “the day we’ve all been waiting for,” its implications are harrowing and ridden with death, as if that day is already long gone.
Cowell is a more than savvy storyteller, as adept at articulating his nomadic experience communing with the gnarled backwoods and rampant terrain of Northern Michigan as he is translating that feeling to a wider audience. Though most visual and aural relics of Lucky Strikes and Liquid Gold are absent in the digital age, its memory and physicality has been handed down and exchanged from person to person. This this reissue is more relevant and more vital to modern-day Western culture, where strict subjection to time and the gradual devaluation of place has distorted our idea of what it means to be human. Jeff Cowell’s music lets the tide roll in slow and steady, allows the beautiful pomp and circumstance of life to make its way to him–and not the other way around.