If rock music is in a state of crisis, then this Madison / Milwaukee / Chicago / NYC / Tucson quintet is the closest thing it has to a rescue.
Hence the band's self-given sobriquet — a sticker on the front of their album Law describes the contents as "epic emergency rock." Granted, it's a bit dramatic, but putting Cougar's brand of instrumental music into words isn't an easy task. Pop music without words? Orchestral theme songs? Electronica-minded fusion jazz? Nothing seems to fit.
The band arrived at "emergency rock" because it captured the "emotional urgency we were trying to lend to the music," said drummer and de facto bandleader Dave Skogen in a phone interview on the way to Chicago for the latest leg of the tour promoting their stunning debut disc.
Whereas most bands take a few shitty releases, or at least a few shows, to hone that distinct sound that is the ultimate key to success, Cougar arrived at something unique right from the start. Law, to be released Feb. 20 in the United States, plays like a lounge music compilation from another universe, but one where Kenny G would never have sold a record. Sublimely chill with its chiming guitars and pulsing, persistent rhythms, the album is part trance rave-up, part guitar concerto and part jazz suite, a 48-minute trip (in every sense of the word) into the little-explored realm of instrumental pop.
The members of Cougar seem to revel in the apparent contradictions in their music, which is complex but easy to listen to, formulaic but unpredictable, initially mellow but often building to a pounding crescendo á la Sigur Ros.
The music contains enough artsy elements, like the sections of noise and meandering polyrhythmic interludes between the songs, to earn indie street cred, but at the same time, the Cougar sound is almost too catchy for such a high-minded group. Syrupy-sweet licks are spread on thick, as the band places an emphasis on melody over all else.
"The whole thing is about the hook," Skogen explained, something that has a universal appeal in all styles of music, "no matter how avant-garde or how pop."
Such a musical common ground was perhaps necessary, considering the diverse backgrounds of Cougar's members. Skogen described guitarist Dan Venne, a Madison graduate in music performance, as an "improvisational gun-for-hire" in New York, where he plays primarily classical and jazz music. Bassist Todd Hill, who is now based in Chicago, plays a lot of jazz as well. Guitarist Trent Johnson, on the other hand, is a pop-music disciple who idolizes Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Hall and Oates. Skogen says he himself was interested primarily in African and Brazilian music before getting really into hip-hop.
These scattered musical influences have come together in the band's ambiguous sound, which doesn't fit neatly into any genre. The hypnotic guitar riffs that form the basis of most of the songs are as melodic as most popular music, but invoke jazz stylings with their precise attack and bell-like guitar tone. Meanwhile, the bass playing takes place on both upright and electric basses, with Hill even busting out a bow for classical-sounding sections on songs like the slow-burning "Strict Scrutiny." Skogen's drumming, with its crisp beats and slick grooves, wouldn't sound out of place on a rap record, although his Latin percussion textures, jazz brushwork and electronic drum sounds are more cosmopolitan than most hip-hop tracks. Ambient noises and other electronics round out the mixture, courtesy of Aaron Sleator (who also plays guitar in the well-established Madison reggae outfit Natty Nation).
The musicians first assembled in Madison in 2003, incited by a chance encounter: Hill was playing on his porch when Johnson happened to ride by on his bike. The two started talking about music, and soon a project was in the works. Many of the musicians already knew each other from local groups, most notably UW-Madison's Black Music Ensemble.
Although it was clear from the start that Cougar would be "instrumental and composition-based," the band crafted their distinct music style with little forethought as to what exactly it would be. "We never made any conscious decision about how the music would sound," Skogen said. "It just immediately came out as this unified sound."
The band recorded Law at houses around Madison and mixed it in Chicago, but the process was prolonged when several members relocated. Once the album was done, Cougar played one Madison show at the Orpheum Stage Door, and then promptly left for a European tour to promote its release there. Now the group is finally touring the United States, with a stop at the High Noon Saloon tonight for an official CD release show.
Skogen attributes the unusual move of initially touring Europe to "label politics" and the "incredibly expensive" cost of touring in the States, where payments for opening bands and intense gas prices suck up revenue. Not to mention that in Europe, clubs are all-ages and young people go out more often. "The whole culture of seeing live music has declined in the States," Skogen said.
Nevertheless, the group is enjoying its current outing. "Doing this U.S. tour with Cougar feels more grounded," he explained. "There's something you can't get touring outside the States, a connection with the audience."
And so the cure for rock music begins, one show at a time.