(Layered Music; 2007)

By Peter Hepburn | 16 February 2007

With modern rock, folk, hip-hop, or pop, recording an instrumental record can be a tough. We should be able to treat lyrics as secondary, but inevitably when we talk instrumentals it's just one or two tracks on an album; we get a pleasant transition--an underdeveloped idea to link a disc together--and then we get back to the meat and bones of singer-songwriter folk/rock/rap/whathaveyou. So when we get a disc of instrumentals, regardless of genre, it really does inspire some trepidation.

True, there are albums that can really pull it off and be all the more transcendent for it-- (2003), Rounds (2003), and Donuts (2006) come to mind immediately. Unfortunately Cougar's debut, Law, is not one of these albums. However, it does show some real promise: while there's a good degree of homogeneity displayed over the course of the record, the band nonetheless has an enviable knack for writing compositions that maintain interest and develop with repeated listens.

At its best, as on "Merit" and "Lifetime Ranger," the band is able to demonstrate both remarkable skill with percussion as well as the ability to intermingle acoustic and electronic elements with the best of the Chicago jazz-rockers. The latter song, held together by a gorgeous, hypnotic chord progression, clatters and hums with the controlled precision of a Four Tet composition. Closing out the album, "Merit" one-ups even that by building its beautiful melody into a full-on crashing wall of guitars and keys, like Explosions in the Sky with a way better drummer.

There are a few other moments on the album--"Atlatl," "Pulse Conditioner," "The Mosaicist"--where the band is able to capture more of this magic. For the most part, though, we get a fairly good deal of steady but not terribly inventive post-rock that can feel too close to Tortoise or the Sea and Cake (trivia: John McEntire mixed this disc) to really be worthwhile (and at nearly 50 minutes, there's too much of it). But Cougar clearly has a good thing started, and deserves to be taken seriously; hopefully on the next record they can open up the sound a bit while also tightening the focus.