In the opening moments of Law's first song, "Atlatl," an acoustic guitar sets a rustic mood with a repeating melodic phrase. But soon, scattered strikes of oddball percussion and muted snippets of dialogue upend any notion that this will be a folk number, and before long an electric bass enters like a cloaked figure to darken and deepen the texture. Midway through the song, a squirrely electric guitar begins shooting out supercharged circular riffs, another joins in, and for a time all these elements dart in and out of the foreground, playing brilliantly with sonic dynamics and ultimately coalescing into an oddly satisfying whole. By the end of this cathartic composition, you wonder what the hell just happened-and you want it to happen again.
Cougar clearly isn't playing by the rock rules, and in fact seems intent on subverting them. The five-piece instrumental band is part of the Layered Arts Collective, a Madison, Wisconsin-based group of artists, teachers, musicians, and writers who profess to be "dedicated to progress." Despite the whiff of pretension this carries, the end justifies the means as Law repeatedly surprises and entices with its unclassifiable mix of rock, folk, jazz, new age, hip-hop, and electronica. This is music with a minimalist sensibility and a rock 'n' roll jones.
On Law, interludes of less than a minute link together longer, more fully formed songs like footpaths between temples. Come wander the grounds in search of transcendence, and you're likely to find it. -Keith Goetzman
MARTHA SCANLAN: The West Was Burning
Martha Scanlan's cracked and quavering voice is a taste that, once acquired, is nigh on impossible to satiate. It's shy, dorky even, and secret: a voice for the kindergarten teacher's happy-hour confidences. And it's completely addictive. It's also the thread that strings up the various styles of music on Scanlan's astonishing solo debut. Inevitably categorized under "Americana," Scanlan's music actually includes trancelike, vulnerable folk ballads, a rock/folk cover of a James Cleveland spiritual, and one sad honky-tonk tune that is-no exaggeration here-one of the best country-western songs ever written. Scanlan, who used to play guitar with the old-timey Reeltime Travelers, broke out on her own after her dreamy tunes caught some traction on the songwriting contest circuit. Folk goddess Gillian Welch, among others, doled out prizes. Move over, Gillian.
Has pianist Steve Kuhn been chronically underrated, or, on the cusp of his 69th birthday in late March, is he a late bloomer? Actually, both. More respected than acclaimed during his long career, Kuhn recently cut discs of such profound beauty and innovative elan that the fabled Blue Note label reunited his All Star Trio from 1986 (bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster) for a live recording at Birdland. Kuhn's classical training is noticeable in his superb intonation; even as he slices and dices Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz" into a half-dozen moods and tempi, each note is firm and rounded. A trio of hard-boppers refuse to compromise between verve and elegance, and the ballads can soothe the nerves or probe the intellect as your mood and attention span warrant. This is tuxedo-suave music with an effortless cache of vitality.
One might expect an album from a collaborator of Beck, the Beastie Boys, and Jack Johnson to have a ring of familiarity. Indeed, Money Mark's Brand New by Tomorrow does have a certain tried and true charm. The easygoing, casual but catchy surfer rock is immediately likable and, like the chirping crickets that lead the album, may remind you of a summer night. Though Mark's first release with Brushfire Records bears the label's signature relaxed sound, the album is not without a degree of tension. Lyrics convey the feeling of moss-covered hurt that comes with breaking up-and moving on. To that end, the work progresses from grief
to acceptance, ending on a bittersweet but determinedly optimistic note with the title track.
Julie Doiron's voice is slightly sandy and beguilingly crisp, always seeming to be on the verge of a warble, a break, a whisper, or a laugh. It's a deceptively raw sound, since Woke Myself Up is the Canadian singer-songwriter's seventh full-length release and is noticeably polished and mature. Reuniting with members from Eric's Trip-the indie-rock darlings with whom she made her name in the '90s-Doiron takes a playful, rollicking turn on many songs, replete with good old-fashioned bass lines
and thumping drums. For fans of the quieter Doiron, the closing two tracks feature just her voice and gently expert guitar work. She is charmingly without pretense as she sings about some of life's bittersweet turns. -Julie Hanus