Cousteau, a London band fronted by a compelling, tattooed, Irish-brogued singer, have garnered terrifically enthusiastic reviews since their 1998 debut. With a sound anchored by Liam McKahey’s impressive baritone and embellished with unusual instrumentation, Cousteau have been described as “elegantly swoonsome and soulful” by Independent writer Garry Mulholland; a writer for New Musical Express claimed Cousteau’s style was “mellow, darkly dreamy and drenched in red wine.” The band’s first record, released in the United Kingdom on a bare-bones budget, is now a highly sought-after collectible, and with their second LP, Sirena, Cousteau were said to have come into their own. “In their lush arrangements and overwrought, brooding vocals,” opined New York Times writer Anthony DeCurtis about Sirena, the “songs evoke a swirling rapture of the deep reminiscent of David Bowie, Bryan Ferry and Nick Cave at their most unguardedly romantic. It’s a sophisticated and strangely unsettling sound … and it runs counter to every current musical trend, from new metal to Americana, from remixes to rock minimalism.”
Cousteau’s members were all veterans of other acts at various points in their careers, and the group formed in north London in 1998 around its songwriter and pianist, Davey Ray Moor. An Australian who suffered from a bad case of asthma as a teen and thus spent an inordinate amount of time inside the house—where he taught himself to play Beatles and David Bowie songs—Moor eventually relocated to London and found a career as a writer of soundtrack music for films. He met guitarist Robin Brown and Joe Peet, a bass player, and the three began working on songs; within a short time drummer Craig Vear came on board, along with the enigmatic McKahey.
Born in the Irish city of Cork, McKahey grew up enjoying his father’s sole legacy to the family he abandoned: an impressive collection of rock and soul records. McKahey moved to London to attend art school and planned on a career in illustration, but his goals were subsumed by sloth, substance abuse, and late nights. “I’m very happy I was able to get out of it in one piece,” McKahey told the Independent’s Mulholland about this time in his life, “because a lot of my friends are dead now.”
When Moor met McKahey, he immediately asked him to join the band. They and the other members agreed on the name Cousteau, after the famed French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau. “All of us, individually, wanted to be in his crew when we were kids,” McKahey said in the Independent interview. “When you think of the word you think of the sea, and the sea is a really good metaphor for what we do. Deep, mysterious, vast.” After recording some tracks but failing to attract any label interest, the band released the songs as a self-titled debut LP in 1999. “We were in a bit of a sink-or-swim situation really,” McKahey told Evening News writer Ben Atherton. “Nobody would give us a deal so we had no choice but to bring it out on our own. It was just a collection of demos.”
Despite the bare-bones production, Cousteau was feted by music critics in Britain, who liked McKahey’s croon and the unusual instruments deployed, like flute and flugelhorn. New Musical Express called the lead singer “indie’s unsung answer to Barry White” and commended the first single, “The Last Good Day of the Year,” for its “gorgeous lilt.” The critic asserted that the combined instrumentation of “Last Good Day” makes it “already sound like a classic love song.” The buzz surrounding the band—boosted by its live shows—helped attract interest from legendary Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, who had recently launched a new label called Palm Pictures. Cousteau’s debut was then rerecorded and remixed for a North American release in 2000. Again, critics delivered adulatory copy. “Moor’s lyrics deal with broken souls, doomed romance and dislocated lives, all underscored by lonely lustful-ness,” wrote John Aizlewood in London’s Guardian newspaper. “Wholly without hubris,” Aizlewood declared, “Cousteau feel things; so they are out of fashion and a trifle uncool. That they make no attempt to rectify this makes them all the more laudable.” Interestingly, Cousteau’s new fan base, buying 200,000 copies of the Palm Pictures release, also drove up the price of the original, less-polished version from 1999, a rarity that began to fetch alarmingly high prices on the secondhand market.
Cousteau built up a following in part for their riveting live shows, for which the quintet donned vintage suits
Members include Robin Brown , guitar, vocals; Liam McKahey (born c. 1965 in Cork, Ireland), vocals; Davey Ray Moor (born in Beirut, Lebanon), piano, vocals; Joe Peet , bass, violin, vocals; Craig Vear , drums.
Group formed in London, England, 1998; released self-titled debut LP on Global Warming label, 1999; in conjunction with U.S. tour, rerecorded Cousteau for North American release, 2000; released follow-up, Sirena, 2002.
that gave off a sly retro look. But when McKahey took his jacket off after a few songs, his heavily tattooed forearms were clearly visible. “The overall impression is of a man sensitive enough to render Mr. Moor’s poetic lyrics,” noted DeCurtis in the New York Times, “but tough enough to relish the memory of a barroom brawl or two.” McKahey’s baritone has been frequently compared to that of soul crooner Scott Walker. The American-born Walker had several hits in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s but was virtually unknown in his homeland. McKahey was flattered by the association. “Walker’s a god,” Cousteau’s singer told Atherton in the Evening News interview. “I’ve got all his albums, I’ve listened to him all my life and my dad was into him as well.”
Moor’s songwriting talents also garnered a good deal of critical admiration, and he sang on a few tracks as well. Reviewing Cousteau in the Guardian, Aizlewood asserted that Moor “provides the songs of distinction that every lovelorn widescreen vocalist needs, but doesn’t always have.” Some of his tracks were compared to the chart-topping hits of 1970s stylist Burt Bacharach—writer of “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” among many other hits. McKahey, often the frontperson for the band’s dealings with the press, did not recoil from the sentiment. “The most important thing to us is melody, I know that’s not very hip at the moment but that’s what we’re about,” McKahey told Birmingham Post journalist Simon Evans. Press interviews notwithstanding, the group has shared everything equally, as Moor explained to DeCurtis in the New York Times —a byproduct of their long collective experience in other bands that went nowhere. “Nobody needs to be the big ‘I am’ and nobody is jostling to be noticed,” Moor said. “It’s an older bloke’s approach, when you know what’s precious and magical and what deserves to be taken care of.”
In late 2001 Cousteau ended the tour dates and headed into the studio to record a follow-up, Sirena. Released in mid-2002, the work again won effusive praise from critics, who pointed out that the band had matured as artists in the interim. Commending such tracks as “Nothing So Bad” and “Heavy Weather,” Sunday Mercury writer Paul Cole called it a “spine-tingling” effort, noting that “the band’s hallmark haunting melancholy has been tempered with big ballad bravura on a grand scale.” Though some predicted it could be the breakthrough that would make them the next Coldplay, McKahey dismissed the idea of calculated pop stardom. “The day we try to write a hit single,” McKahey told the Independent’s Mulholland, “is the day we’re gonna split up.”
Cousteau, Global Warming, 1999; rerecorded and reissued, Palm Pictures, 2000.
Sirena, Palm Pictures, 2002.
Birmingham Post (England), November 6, 2000, p. 13.
Guardian (London, England), October 20, 2000, p. 18.
Independent (London, England), June 14, 2002, p. 21.
New Musical Express (England), November 4, 1999; December 2, 1999; June 13, 2000; January 12, 2001.
New York Times, June 30, 2002.
Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), June 9, 2002, p. 39.
"Cousteau." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/cousteau
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