The CD may be dying as far as major labels are concerned, but it remains the lifeblood of many small independent acts. That's especially true in this town, where a local band without a CD is indeed a rara avis. It's not unusual to have multiple release parties during the same week.
The recent increase in quantity is accompanied by a big up-tick in variety. That makes the reviewer's job more interesting. After all, a few years ago no one would have guessed that a Wisconsinite would generate a full CD of throat singing.
Most of the local CDs reviewed in this column aren't nearly as exotic in concept or execution. But that's all right, too. Rock, guitar folk and, to a lesser degree, hip-hop still predominate in the Midwest, and despite some unique features, Madison is still a very Midwestern town.
That Midwestern quality often grates with artists who've spent several years plying their trade around town, and it was no surprise when prolific local MC OX wandered to New York for a spell a year or so back. But now he's announcing his return to Buckyland with a sprawling two-CD set, Life Support, where he often plays the sort of reflective tough-guy that 2Pac conjured so effortlessly. He hits his stride on "The Hustle," a sinister-cum-tragic tale that exposes the inevitable downward trajectory of street life, then nails his bona-fides with "Can He Forgive," a gospel-tinged disquisition on the sinner's chance at redemption that swings slowly and insistently thanks to some focused production by DJ Pain 1.
After a dozen more tracks play out, OX's blunt, conversational cadences threaten to become a little too familiar. But then he turns around and assays "3rd Person," a weird slice of self-examination that finds him observing the failings and struggles of his rap persona with the detachment of an omniscient narrator.
Carl Johns was a key member of Madison's indie scene. He also wandered east in search of new experiences and broader horizons, but unlike OX his move has become permanent. He continues to perform under his old Charlemagne moniker, albeit with a pair of new collaborators who live closer to his current base in Brooklyn. Charlemagne's new release, We Can Build an Island, finds Johns touching on the more vigorous strum-rock of the Velvet Underground (think Loaded rather than White Light/White Heat) as well as reflective folk-rock that's by turns wistful and spaced out.
The lead track, "Crushes," rattles through a garage-y dissection of the pluses and minuses of infatuation and is probably the most immediately rousing thing here. But after a few listens, the atmospheric electric guitar showcase "Until We Are Called," an oozing swirl of impressionistic six-string work, pays the biggest aural dividends.
Unabashedly heavy, the Arge basically dare you to appreciate them on their level. Their self-titled full-length starts with "Dogs," an adamantine riff fest of which Blue Cheer would most certainly have approved. They cite grunge as an influence, and everyone from the Screaming Trees to Nirvana seems to have provided some building blocks for seething, viscous fare like "Benzocaine," "Equalizer" and "Geek Train."
But there's a spark of originality here, too. Plus, the Arge's preference for basic song structures at a time when the self-consciously clever and complex win kudos everywhere has a kind of post-Kurt rock 'n' roll purity about it.
The six-piece Baghdad Scuba Review make no bones about their displeasure with George W. Bush on Testing the Waters. He gets a thorough pummeling in both the progressive jam "GWIII" and the jazz-inflected groove "Ol' Orleans." The latter tune even imagines W. joyriding around his Texas ranch in a CO2-belching SUV while post-Katrina New Orleans slowly twists in the wind.
No doubt the pointed political beat-downs will elicit nods of approval in left-of-center college towns like Madison, but the fact is BSR aren't just about sticking it to the man. They have real chemistry, and at their best they move well beyond their Deadhead sources. That's never more evident than on the cyclical, ever-climaxing instrumental "Out @ 11," a trippy slice of neo-jam effusion that brings Allman-style double guitar leads together with woozy synth filigree and pulsing trance-rock beats. The extended track doesn't go on forever here, but it certainly could. Hey, if the drugs were right, I'm sure no one would complain.
There's something both mournful and ecstatic about the intriguing takes on throat singing that fill db Pedersen's full-length debut, Carrot Carrot! His promo material describes him as a folk artist, but don't let that fool you. Although he borrows some technique from the strange, overtone-rich style of singing practiced by the Tuvan nomads of the Siberian/Mongolian border, he has no interest in imitating their tradition.
Instead, Pederson moves between lulling, groove-based pieces that share something with electronic moodists like Dead Can Dance, Tom Waits-brushed hipster lowing, and more unbridled compositions that move into vanguard territory touched upon by Laurie Anderson, Robert Ashley and other sonic explorers of the '60s and '70s. Indeed, it's easy to picture him performing the more demanding pieces from Carrot Carrot! in both nightclubs and progressive art spaces both here and abroad.
Sometimes Pedersen's voice is guttural and brooding, but it can also be very light and ethereal. And when he imitates birds and other creatures of the forest and field on the bucolic "Up a Ways," he lets out high twitters and warbles that dance with a kind of operatic grace. The music that accompanies his vocal gymnastics is minimal, and that's as it should be. Anything more than the jazz and rock bass loops, some Bansuri flute and simple, vaguely "global" percussion parts that make up the backing tracks would probably just get in the way.