High Art

It is well into the night, and the only discernible noise on the southwest corner of Westheimer and Dunlavy is the boom-chick-boom-chick-boom seeping through the walls of a cafe that looks like a grounded tree house.

It doesn't sound this way round here often, mainly because Lowbrow, the six-member multipiece band making this racket, plays Houston about every other month. And Brasil, the wanna-be European cafe where the band set up shop in late October, isn't exactly the place to go for local rock shows.

The carnival-like signage hanging above the makeshift stage announces the band's name but not necessarily its music: The sounds created by Lowbrow, after all, are not as crude and simple as the name might suggest.

Lowbrow may be Houston's closest thing to a speakeasy band. The guys use virtually no publicity, the music is full of Roarin' Twenties cat-daddy piano pounding, and their performance regalia is made up of prohibition-era digs, such as derbies, suspenders and barbershop shirts.

But the enigmatic band isn't just an anachronism. Rodney Elliott's funky bass and Kosmo's screaming lead vocals give the band a contemporary edge. And some members will wear Hawaiian turkey shirts and face paint in stark contrast to their throwback bandmates.

Kosmo calls the sound "new punk," which may be stretching it. But with so many crossovers evident in late-1990's music, who's to say the vaudeville-sounding Lowbrow isn't punk?

"We sing about Jesus, the devil, mad midgets, drunken monkeys, crazy shit," says Kosmo (as in Doug Kosmo), 28, who's dressed like a Gap cowboy in his rustic plaid shirt, jeans, boots and hat. He's sitting in a near-empty Brasil on a recent morning, days before his band would take the stage.

Lowbrow's subject matter doesn't necessarily reflect Kosmo's life experiences. After high school he spent a little time at the Art Institute of Houston before moving to Mexico, where he painted murals. It was scary being alone and not speaking the language, so the Houston native returned home and soon formed a band with friend Brandy Collins. The duo eventually started Lowbrow, now in its second year and already with an arsenal of 70 songs.

The band has played Austin and will soon trek out west to play Los Angeles and the Bay Area. The group landed both gigs after turning promoters' heads at a Reno, Nevada-area arts festival in September.

Local fan response blew up after they played an Art Guys show in October, says Kosmo. It was the first big wave of feedback for Kosmo, Elliott, Collins (piano/violin/ kazoo), Mike G (drums) and brothers Arthur (saxophone) and John Marino (clarinet/horn).

"We don't have press releases, no eight-by-ten glossies," says Kosmo. "Don't get me wrong. If a good label approached us, shit yeah," the band would sign.

"My plan is to play music until I die. If it's small cafes or whatever [that's okay]. My plan is not to buy gold teeth or whatever," he says, running a finger across his grill, skewering the flashy accessories sported by some high-priced acts.

A crowd of about 60, not including a couple dozen lounging on the outdoor patio, mill around the cafe during Lowbrow's CD release party for JuJu Muffin, its first official album. At about midnight Kosmo announces to the mainly late-twenties/early-thirties career-oriented audience that 20 of the 100 available discs have been sold. Approximately 50 are gone by set's end.

The remainder of the limited release will be sold at local record stores. For the die-hard fan, a few of the group's two earlier, unofficial releases are available on Lowbrow's Web site, www.akosmoproduction.com.

Lowbrow's combination of retro sound and slacker prose attracts an educated audience looking for something other than the tunes littering the Buzz. At the CD-release party, Angeles Romero, 32, a multimedia artist dressed in all black and standing in a back corner of the room digging the band, says Lowbrow evokes the "dark side of the circus."

Michele Raiford, 32, compares Kosmo's voice to the groggy growl of Tom Waits. And the band's presentation, she says, "really allows you to get into the mood."

Wearing black pants, a black derby and suspenders, Kosmo frequently leaves his place on stage between songs and during musical interludes to mingle with the crowd, hug a couple of friends and shake his tush in their faces.

During "Magic Lemon Pie," one of three songs on the new CD that truly rock, the thin line of people around the stage join in chanting the "la-la-la" chorus and smacking tambourines to the beat. The thumping piano and Middle Eastern clarinet sounds make "Pie" a citrusy cacophony.

Seeing this, a bemused onlooker near the back of the house, Brandon Matthews, 28, quips: "It's a plethora of juvenile antics."

Kosmo says people from all walks of life are part of Lowbrow's listenership.

"Rich folk, old folk, all kinds of people, all kinds of colors, gay people, straight people," he says, grinning. Because of the eclectic venue that is Brasil, a number of Europeans also groove to Lowbrow. The band started playing there on a whim, then weekly, and now plays there sporadically. The only other local stage the group likes, and plays, is Rudyard's.

For sure, Lowbrow live is much more enjoyable than on CD. Muffin was recorded in Collins's kitchen. In one take. Eighteen of the 21 tracks were part of that household experiment. The three other tunes were a combination of live tracks and "art songs."

"Undone," the first track, is too long, and the vocals, so integral to the band's sound, are buried. The song lasts more than eight minutes, in part because of the two-minute intro that could be called a prologue. When the song finally kicks in, Kosmo starts barking into a megaphone and Collins accentuates the chorus with a mean kazoo. It's all much better live.

The piano- and brass-heavy "My House" is another catchy track, with unscrupulous yet cool non sequiturs such as "I left my baby in the hall. / San Francisco, she's a ball."

Some tracks, however, are to be treated as art, not necessarily music. There's "Rocks," which is literally the sound of a dozen people hurling granite at an empty refrigerator lying in a ditch. And "Black Pig" is basically the sound of mumbling and barely audible inside jokes.

Kosmo, an artist by day, uses such freestyling, off-the-wall shtick on stage. One of his favorite "expressions," in fact, is showing off his "baby bird," by pushing a testicle through his zipper, creating a sort of metallic "nest."

While a demonstration like that makes for an interesting show, it also points out that there in fact may be a little lowbrow in the band with the same name.

Kosmo says the band's next Houston performance will be in December, when Lowbrow will play 12 songs, one for every day of Christmas, at 12 different venues. Where? He doesn't know yet.

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Seth Landau