Friday, May 20, 2011

Review: Juniper Tar - "The Howl Street EP"

Juniper Tar 2010 Press photo 11

By Jon Stone | @jwstone

It’s no secret that we are big fans of Milwaukee’s Juniper Tar here at Muzzle of Bees. They’re playing one of our 5-year-anniversary shows (2/19 in Madison); we mention them every chance we get; oh, and Muzzle of Bees’ own Ryan Matteson and WMSE’s Ryan Schleicher (bassist and vocalist in Juniper Tar) have a little podcastthat you might have heard. The connections are everywhere.

But being out of the northern loop, I’ve never met these dudes — just heard them.  I’ve been listening to theirHowl Street EP for several weeks now and wow, it’s good. It's out today. You should get it. They will celebrate the release of the EP this Thursday night at Club Garibaldi. You should go.

This EP follows the band's 2008 release of the full-length To the Trees (which you can get from the band in exchange for your email address here!) and shows that the band is serious about its development and evolution. An EP like this needs to work in some very specific ways. It should create anticipation and excitement in a wider-than-local audience -- in essence something to tour behind. It should give that audience both broad and fine-stroke ideas about craft, style, and influence. And it should work as a kind of flag-ship of the band's best work for potential labels. In other words, it should make a strong argument -- one that will move people to get out and see the band. The Howl Street EP succeeds in all these ways. I want to see this band as soon as possible.

In regards to the style and influences behind Juniper Tar,  I hear an attention to tradition but with a unique distillation that other artists like Justin Townes Earle and bands like Dawes are doing so well right now. Also, there is an aesthetic to Juniper Tar that reminds me of groups like the National and Explosions in the Sky -- a sound that manages to be greater than the sum of its parts. That can't be easy to pull off.

"Innerstates" opens the record with a great melody with strong and layered vocals. It's songs like this that have earned the band the designation of being "folksy roots-rock." The vocal harmonies here are indicitive of what kind of record this is going to be. They are the first thing that catch my attention and surely,"Innerstates" sets the tone for the EP. The folksy roots-rock thing blows up into something much bigger pretty quickly though. Not that the rest of the EP isn't folksy or rootsy, it just does a lot more. "Birds in the Trees" has that Explosions in the Sky element I was talking about with a long wistful jam at the end. "Old Mystery" also has this element. It is an epic tune that builds for several minutes before moving into the verses and chorus. In this case the concluding jam has multiple guitars trading lines back and forth. It's fun to listen to; it must be a blast to play.

The record closes with "Strings" and it employs a songwriting strategy that I notice is used often throughout The Howl Street EP. It involves the use of a single vocal line repeated against the building dynamics of the rest of the band. It's effective. It gives the words a chance to sink in but also allows space for the rest of the band to move around and speak -- first in simple vocal harmonies, but later and as it builds into that sweeping bigness I was talking about earlier. There is usually a back and forth here, as on "Birds in the Trees," that creates a kind of dialog between the vocals and the instruments. Like I mentioned, it's really fun to listen to. And, no mistake about it, this is a guitar record. There is some really incredible playing here: acoustic, electric, lap-steel -- it's all great.

I can't say that I'm not just a little jealous of the Wisconsin festivities that are coming up here in the next few weeks. From the release party for this great EP, to the Muzzle of Bees anniversary shows, not to mention the incredible consistency of amazing shows you guys seem to get. It helps a bit that I see a TBA date scheduled on Juniper Tar's upcoming tour down here in Champaign. I can't wait to meet you guys.

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