Songs for Cowards rolls the film in the mind’s eye to project scenes of unfettered traveling, frail wallets and substituting guitar for gospel. Howling a nostalgic lament over a broken down organ. Unabashedly proclaiming your lot in life to whoever’s around to hear, even if it makes you a bastard. After a first listen, it seems like an archive of personal anthems championing the rowdy, the rugged, and the raw.
And it is, to a certain level. Frontman Dave Van Witt even attributes the band’s three main influences to be ”Brothers and whiskey. Whiskey counts as two- bourbon and scotch.”
But the devil’s in the details. From the path of Sidewalk Dave’s style of dirty, Americana/folk ballad strays a commentary on the vulnerability of cowardice. ‘Cowards at the Alter’ and ‘War at the Alter’ sandwich the bulk of the seven tracks on the record, and would fit seamlessly together if consecutively arranged. ‘Cowards at the Alter’ doesn’t seem to take place in a chapel so much as it would in front of a mirror. Van Witt darkly coos, “I’m a coward/whispered it before and I hoped you could hear.” It’s a weak admission. But it’s a calculated choice with which to introduce the album, and redeems itself throughout the middle tracks. Culminating in the venomous conclusion of ‘War at the Alter,’ Van Witt’s half-growl grinds over the lines: “And when I get to shore, I’ll say what I did before/I’m no coward.”
Cowards holds the dynamic of a lyrical journey, but is also a testament to the labor of a physical one. Referencing the period of the intended album release two years ago, Van Witt said, ”We had the songs but we were still trying to find our sound.” The years to follow witnessed the band resorting to self-production, the growth of a five-song EP into a nine song CD, and the addition of Noah Goldman of Aeroplane 1929 on lead guitar. The resulting product is two records’ worth of extra material and an upcoming local tour. Van Witt recalls the process with a brand of humored peace, saying ”The difference between us and the clinically insane is that we can adapt, evolve, and learn from our insanity. So yeah, it’s changing.”
The material heard on Cowards is evidence of this, a record that sounds like it’s permanently in transit. ‘Chord Organ Blues’ is a Daniel Johnston cover, chosen for its message of impermanent expression, what Van Witt simplifies to ”moving to Texas and making tapes of music in your garage.” Both Johnston and Van Witt sap courage from their ability to allow their music to settle them, while they might not be physically settled.
The record’s melodies sound like samples of canned folk you’d hear through the open window of a jalopy you’re sitting next to in traffic on the interstate. Attach flighty drumming, lazy bass and Dave’s scarred, rich vocals and you’ve got Sidewalk Dave: a musical collective who sprawls across their map of style just far enough to embrace their complete creative process.