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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Juniper Tar's Collective Voice

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In this era of digital downloads, home recording programs and file-sharing options like SoundCloud, the idea of the musical group has changed dramatically. Band members are now often little more than collaborators, co-creators who often don't even perform together. This is not necessarily a bad thing; such developments have leveled the playing field for musicians without large budgets for recording, allowing for more and more quality music to be made by players often thousands of miles apart. The future is here—it makes little sense to simply complain about it.

That being said, there is something inherently romantic about a band that still lives and breathes as a “band.” Milwaukee-based Juniper Tar has walked this walk now for seven years and, in the process, has become a mainstay in a scene marked by rampant turnover. Listening to the group's newest album, the stellar Since Before, one is struck by the feelings of collaboration and camaraderie that mark the record. If nothing else, the record makes it sound like the band members love and respect each other. No player sticks out; despite each of them being accomplished musicians, the members of Juniper Tar seem more than willing to put individual ego aside and create songs that speak to the power of a collective voice.

Since Before
is an incredibly ambitious record, a collection of 13 songs spaced over two LPs. And while it would be stretching things to refer to Since Before as a “concept” album, there are themes that repeat throughout the record.

“The composition process of these songs started after I had a pretty serious accident with a traumatic brain injury,” explains vocalist/guitarist Jason Mohr, “so naturally these songs came from a reflective place that I never visited before.” For Mohr, the record quickly became “about memory, time and our daily relationships with death, not necessarily in that order. The album title kind of sums it up in some way: Since Before. I was just really attracted to the sort of puzzle meaning in thinking about a given time before another time, until the present.”

This introspective spirit informs Since Before, as songs such as “Canting,” “Black Pain Tea” and “Residents” resonate with a somber tone that suggests a band fully coming into its own. Perhaps due to the fact that the band recorded the album over a span of a year and a half, the material on Since Before sounds fully developed, yet not over-thought. The album is cerebral in nature, but one that finds little comfort in the quiet of the mind.

“The songs for this record were composed in a very different way than we've ever worked before,” Mohr explains. “There are a number of songs that were actually fully written before I had even written lyrics, so then as a solution to writing words I utilized a sort of Burroughs' 'cut-up method' right in the recording studio, where I collected random clippings of words and built the songs in that way.” This approach proves disconcerting at times, a feeling amplified by such cuts as “Since,” a mid-album instrumental that mixes a soft piano line with a host of disorienting noises.

Following a four-night residency at the East Side bar Hotel Foster, the band will use their upcoming April 27 show at the Turner Hall Ballroom to officially release Since Before. Befitting a record of this scope and ambition, the band's Turner Hall performance will feature collaborations with guest musicians, including Paul Cebar, B.J. Seidel (formerly of Decibully), Trapper Schoepp, Joe Crockett (The Championship) and Shane Hochstetler (Call Me Lightning). “This city is filled with so many great musicians that we admire, so we thought, 'Why not make the occasion of our record release a reason to celebrate the super-friendly music community?'” Mohr says.

Milwaukee's music scene has helped to support the band throughout its existence—Hochstetler, for example, recorded Since Before at his Bay View studio Howl Street Recordings—so, to Juniper Tar, it made sense to at least try to repay this debt. “We naturally work hard as a band,” Mohr concludes, “so why not work even harder and bring some other good people along for the ride?”

Juniper Tar and company headline the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, April 27, at 7 p.m. with openers Surgeons in Heat, who will also be celebrating a record release.