Before the Law

The men of Cougar kill time before a private screening of 'Dreamgirls'
Peter Streicher


Tracking down David Skogen, drummer for Cougar, isn't an easy task. He may be holding down one of the three drum thrones for the Youngblood Brass Band, working out some business details for his record label (Layered), or, as he was when I reached him, teaching drum line drills at his high school alma mater.

Nominally, Cougar appears to be from Madison, Wisconsin, where its members went to school and their debut disc, Law,was recorded . "Four of the five of us met in Richard Davis's Black Music Ensemble," Skogen divulges, "but as soon as Cougar started to make the record, people were thinking about leaving town, grad school, whatever. I'm the only one that lives in Madison (now). The other guys are in Tucson, Milwaukee, New York City, and Chicago."

Their partaking in Professor Davis's ensemble was telling. A renowned jazz bassist in his day, Davis provided supple low end to everyone from Sarah Vaughn and Eric Dolphy to Igor Stravinsky and Van Morrison. And while that group's dynamic focused on spontaneous interplay, Cougar sought to refine such playing "into ideas that were actually set, but as fulfilling as improvisation. We wanted very immediate hooks and smooth transitions, but quick songs." With a pedigree in jazz, Cougar crafts intricate, instrumental explorations both low-key and dynamic, where acoustic and electronic sounds meld into an organic whole. And with John McEntire mixing the record, they get compared to post-rock godfathers Tortoise plenty often. Skogen doesn't deny it, but insists that they're "not nearly as influential as someone like Four Tet or Telefon Tel Aviv."

Law itself is a curious beast; it suggests post-rock's tone and sense of space but replaces exploratory languor with something far more urgent and compressed. Clean-toned guitar lines from Trent Johnston and Dan Venne helix around Skogen's rhythms, his drum hits meshing with triggered samples from the laptop of Aaron Sleator. Sudden polyrhythmic outbursts ratchet up the intensity level, tightening the tricky melodic lines. Their leads turn incandescent on opener "Atlatl," and break up the percussive patter on "Your Excellency." Elsewhere, the frenetic steel-drum fills that highlight "Pulse Conditioner" could soundtrack the scampering of Tom & Jerry.

When the music does take a moment to catch its breath, a mellifluous voice emerges. Turns out that Cougar's "vocalist" is none other than ubiquitous constitutional law commentator Ann Althouse, a professor at the U of W. "Trent was a law student," Skogen laughs. "We picked her lectures because she's got such a cool cadence of speech. The timbre and phrasing of her speech all sounded so nice."

Getting Cougar together isn't the easiest of endeavors, with Johnson practicing law in Milwaukee, Venne gigging in New York, and the others scattered. But unlike their other projects, Cougar exudes a sense of quiescence. "Touring with Youngblood," Skogen contrasts, "is about getting everybody sweaty and shouting, bumping hips and shaking fists. Cougar is a whole different thing, to provoke an audience to silence."

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