When you’re an American abroad, you take care to mind your manners and avoid looking like the Ugly American. You follow any directions you may have been given, you studiously avoid the restaurants and attractions that might be considered touristy, and if you were abroad at any point within the past four years you avoided mentioning Donald Trump at all costs. (We used to sew Canadian flags onto their luggage to avoid getting the evil eye, but people caught on to that one pretty quickly.) We know we have a reputation, not entirely undeserved, of being boorish loudmouths, so we act on our best behavior and keep from leaking ketchup from our pores in fancy eateries.
The protagonist of “Cowboy in Montmartre,” the wickedly funny new song by Austin-based indie rockers Western Threads, is not burdened by such concerns. He’s an American businessman in Paris, “over the hill and overweight,” and he’s looking for love (or the next best thing) in the red light district. The song’s title is a reference to Lee Hazlewood’s album, Cowboy in Sweden, but the protagonist is no Lee Hazlewood; although our man in Paris tries to summon a certain American grandeur when he asks prostitutes to call him “Wyatt Earp” or “Wild Bill,” it only serves to make him look more pathetic.
Eventually, a woman’s voice takes over, and we come to realize what kind of situation our wannabe cowboy has found himself in. The woman is a prostitute who promises no-strings-attached fun, asking him to call her various French girl names: Antoinette, Juliet, Jane [Birkin?], “or any name that you’d like to scream.” But the Parisian fantasy doesn’t last long: she says she’s looking for “a sick pig to be led ahead/into my bed and then the grave.” She notes with contempt that the poor sap said she reminded him of his daughter, and asks if he misses his wife and kids before stabbing him to death. His spirit will haunt the streets of Paris, and she’ll hear him pass below her terrace when he does, but there’s no gothic romance to her tone: he meant nothing to her when he was alive, and even less now that he’s dead.
Now, based on all of that, what do you imagine this song sounds like? Something eerie, dirgey, bitter? Taking influence from Nick Cave? Perhaps some chanson-from-hell vibes, like late-period Scott Walker? Well, surprise! “Cowboy in Montmartre” is a warm, fun, cozy-sounding alt-rock track along the lines of Yo La Tengo, complete with a married couple providing the vocals (Jacob Lewis and Ainsley Richter) and some tasty, fuzzy guitar tones. That the sound is so incongruous to what you would expect for the subject matter only makes it more fun–it’s the friendliest, most gleefully cruel song you’re likely to hear for a while.