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Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010

Juniper Tar’s Howl Street Retreat

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Ah, the fabled cabin up north. It’s rivaled only by the bedroom and Folsom Prison in the pantheon of romanticized places to record an album, conjuring restorative images of nature and solitude, as well as a whiff of man-versus-wilderness excitement. Countless musicians have made the trek up to the woods hoping for inspiration to strike, and as recording technology grows cheaper and more portable, no doubt many more will follow them—especially after Bon Iver's success turned every singer-songwriter with access to his parents’ vacation property into Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The Milwaukee Americana ensemble Juniper Tar recorded its 2008 full-length debut, To the Trees, in one of those northern cabins, and while the retreat was as reinvigorating as expected, the logistics of recording were surprisingly restrictive.

“We still look at that first album as a demo,” admits singer-guitarist Jason Mohr. “We didn’t have the means or production to capture a really detailed sound, so we just played it live.”

So for their follow-up EP, which the group releases this week, Juniper Tar headed to one of the least sexy, least novel places to record an album: the studio. The group booked time with producer Shane Hochstetler at Howl Street Recordings, a little hub in a not particularly scenic part of Bay View that’s walking distance from a gas station and one of the city’s better Mexican restaurants. Though Howl Street didn’t offer much in the way of majestic old-growth surroundings, it afforded far better recording amenities than most cabins ever could.

“It’s just this great-sounding room,” Mohr says. “Plus it had this upright piano we could use, which was a huge plus.”

The group was so inspired by the studio that they christened their final product after it: The Howl Street EP.

The EP’s four songs are of a piece, sharing themes of new beginnings and renewals. “They were written over a couple years in my life when a lot was changing—divorce, a new relationship, an engagement,” Mohr says.

With its unhurried songs and uplifting three-part harmonies, Howl Street strikes a similar tone to the Avett Brothers’ softer works, particularly on the EP’s piano-led opener “Innerstates.” Juniper Tar is more subtle about its interpolation of old-time American music, though, and, especially in their louder moments, the two bands strike wildly divergent paths. Where the Avett Brothers’ songs threaten to break into a hootenanny, Juniper Tar’s hold their resolve, climaxing not in hoots and hollers but rather with urbane surges of three tightly woven guitars. It’s during these climaxes that Juniper Tar’s Gram Parsons-styled songs expose their concurrent roots in indie-rock, recalling the bleary crescendos of slowcore bands like Bedhead and Codeine.

Performing live, the group tips its hat to ’90s indie-rock even further.

“When we play live, I think we just feel pure emotion,” says guitarist Aaron Schleicher. “We don’t care if we look silly jumping around and knocking stuff over. We’re not intentionally jumping around or bumping into each other. Once we’re in a loud club and we’re getting into it, we feel it’s OK to turn up the guitars a little louder. When we record, though, we’re a little more conscious of how loudly we’re playing.”

Though it would seem like a chore composing arrangements for so many guitars without cluttering the songs, the band says it comes naturally.

“Generally when a song gets real big or gets real quiet, it just happens on its own,” Schleicher says. “We just noodle around until a song sounds like it should; it’s not something we have to pay attention to. I think it also helps that to have three guitarists in the band means having three songwriters in the band. Songwriters aren’t trying to show off their instruments; they’re always in the mind-set of what does and doesn’t belong in the context of a song.”

Juniper Tar plays a 9 p.m. EP release show at Club Garibaldi on Thursday, Feb. 18, with The Vulgarians.