For nearly 15 years, Ben Cook was a guitarist in a band with a very intentional and focused aesthetic: Fucked Up, the Canadian hardcore heroes whose DIY approach, visual consistency and commitment to frontman Damien Abraham’s growl—even as their musical ambitions grew—made them one of the most reliable (and best) punk bands of the 21st century.
Cook has left Fucked Up, but he’s following a similar path with Young Guv, his indie/power/psych-pop project that released two albums (GUV I and GUV II) in 2019 and, now, two more (GUV III and GUV IV) in 2022. All four were released by the excellent Run For Cover Records, each sports similarly styled, flower-themed cover art by Brualio Amado, and each offers a heaping helping of Cook’s melancholy, melodically generous music.
The touchstones here are not hard to spot, regardless of whether they are actual influences on Cook: Guitar-pop royalty like The Raspberries, The Byrds, Big Star, Matthew Sweet and Teenage Fanclub echo throughout Young Guv’s catalog, especially in the sparkling guitar jangle and sugary vocal harmonies that permeate GUV I and GUV III. (GUV II is comparably catchy, but with more forays into synth-funk and sophisti-pop.)
On GUV IV, Cook’s songs feel fuller and more fleshed out, which seems like it could be a byproduct of the album’s unique songwriting process. In the spring of 2020, after the COVID-19 pandemic halted Young Guv’s tour in Texas, Cook and his bandmates decamped to Taos, New Mexico, where they lived in a solar-powered adobe structure built with recycled bottles and tires. There, they spent the next nine months piecing the album together between swims in the Rio Grande, soaking in the area’s mystic vibes and rediscovering what matters most as the world went through an unprecedented time of uncertainty.
As a result, perhaps, GUV IV boasts a broader palette of sounds than its predecessors. Lilting steel guitar lends a twangy feel to a handful of songs, most notably the dream-pop/honky-tonk hybrid “Change Your Mind” and “Maybe I Should Luv Somebody Else,” which is basically a straightforward but shimmering country song. Meanwhile, the album’s home stretch hearkens back to the 1980s, with two head-over-heels love songs—“Helium” and “Nervous Around U”—that offer a taut, sharply cornered take on new wave, and another (“No Where At All”) that recalls the first wave of lush, dreamy indie-pop. In every case, Cook’s irrepressible melodies shine through.
The most impressive run of the album comprises three tracks that showcase the psychedelic sound Young Guv brought home from New Mexico. “Overcome” travels along a shuffling, syncopated rhythm that brings to mind Seattle psych-folk cult faves The Green Pajamas, and “Love Me Don’t Leave Me” settles into a stately, droning groove (with strings!) and just hovers there like a leisurely lightning storm in a cloud of “la-la-la-la-la-la-la”s. And then there’s “Sign from God,” a display of sturdy guitar work, pedal-board wizardry and freaky saxophone soloing that makes Young Guv sound like Tame Impala from an alternate timeline where the portmanteau “psych-pop” still means something.
Since recording the third and fourth volumes of the GUV series, Cook has been “taking a complete break from music,” he says, instead focusing on learning how to box and speak Spanish. Which makes you wonder if perhaps GUV IV is the final chapter of this particular phase of Young Guv’s arc, or if there’s a GUV V in our future. Either way, Cook has already proven himself as one of the underground’s most consistent purveyors of ultra-melodic pop-rock. He can spend his time however he wants, of course, but here’s hoping he finds his way back to music soon.
Ben Salmon is a committed night owl with an undying devotion to discovering new music. He lives in the great state of Oregon, where he hosts a killer radio show and obsesses about Kentucky basketball from afar. Ben has been writing about music for more than two decades, sometimes for websites you’ve heard of but more often for alt-weekly papers in cities across the country. Follow him on Twitter at @bcsalmon.