US - Wisconsin - Full Moon 121 - 08/09/06
Somewhere in Chicago, a hermetically-sealed room contains a computer that spews out soundwaves. Each soundwave is the shape of an instrumental outpouring that is mathematically precise, is played by jazz-rock musicians wearing cool clothes, and is sold in digipacks in Rough Trade Records, buried in a basement in the coolest corner of London.
Presiding over this strongroom of sound is one John McEntire, best known for being a key member of seminal post-rock band Tortoise, drummer in the swooningly wonderful Sea and Cake, and engineer/owner of Soma Electronic Music Studios. If a CD is released that's got John's name on it, chances are I'll prick up my ears, hoping that this particular version of the computer's perfect code can turn my spine to jelly, just like the rest.
After all, I'd recently been turned on by It's All Around You, the latest Tortoise album from 2004. It was unjustly maligned by Pitchfork upon its release, and hence ignored by the lemming in me that wouldn't throw myself over the cliff in spasms of adoration unless the score read 7.7 or higher. Balls to you Pitchfork - IAAY is great.
And so is Law. Well, almost great. But who are Cougar I hear you cry? They're from Madison, Wisconsin, and there are six talented men playing these fifteen tracks. Fifteen tracks, but only nine proper songs, because there are five throwaway interludes that are, well, throwaway, and a final track that just repeats a guitar line from one of the other songs to fade.
Opener "Atlatl" has got some fucking awesome bits in it. The overlapping guitars in the intro are beautiful, and the riffing at the climax is pretty gnarly. There's something a bit cack-handed about the way the song is structured, and the additional percussion is a bit superfluous, but it's a strong way to kick off a debut album, bold and precise.
Then there's one of those unnecessary sub-minute interludes before the best track here, "Strict Scrutiny". Again, Cougar's strengths are in the way they overlap clean, chiming guitars, this time acoustics, tracing out a glistening pattern that weaves and sings. The bass snakes in and around, chased by some brushed drums and a rimshot. It all dances around in the sunlight for a while, dusted with some digital manipulations, until the spine-melting pay-off: a double bass comes groaning in for a final run-through of the main theme. Oh yes.
"Pulse Conditioner" does some interesting things with percussion. Not sure what sort of percussion, but either way, Cougar have to acknowledge the University of Wisconsin percussion studio for the loan of instruments - they're good boys, as well as clever ones. Again, like "Atlatl", there's something about the structure of the piece that doesn't quite work, but there's plenty of interesting stuff going on to make repeated listens rewarding.
The album continues in much the same way, alternating lengthy, fidgety explorations with those sub-minute throwaways. Plus, they have one of the worst song titles I've ever heard: "Interracial Dating".
And then they have almost-closer "Merit", which is totally ace. Unlike the disappointingly modest rock-out in the otherwise lovely "Your Excellency", "Merit" goes all out, and it really suits Cougar. I find that one of the mistakes with instrumental rock is for bands to make judgements that too often end up taking songs in the wrong direction. If a song wants to rock out, let it! Not post-rock enough? Who cares! Make good music, not just clever music. And that's where "Merit" succeeds beautifully: clocks in at under four minutes, with enough twists and turns to keep you interested, and then a chunky pay-off at the end. Nice one.
So, another digipack from the hermetically-sealed room of perfection is good, but not great. Loosen up and serve the songs, Cougar, and your second album is going to be truly awesome. For now, Law is good, with plenty of fascinating instrumental interplay, but proof that it takes more than just talent like this to make a great album. Cougar have definitely got it in them, but we'll have to wait a while.
Copyright © 2006 Tim Clarke