Review by Heather Phares
While listening to Boss, the Magik Markers' second album for Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, it's hard to pinpoint exactly which change is the biggest between this set of songs and albums like Feel the Crayon, I Trust My Guitar, etc., and the Markers' many CD-Rs. Actually, the fact that Boss has pieces of music that could comfortably be called "songs" might be the most radical thing about it. With the help of Lee Ranaldo as producer and occasional guitarist and glockenspiel player -- and without former bassist Leah Quimby -- on Boss the Markers strip away the most abrasive parts of their previous work, add just the right amount of melodies and structure, and somehow maintain the free-flowing, experimental heart of their music. It's not much of a stretch to say that the results are something of a revelation. Even the Magik Markers' biggest fans probably couldn't have predicted that the band would have been able to put their own spin on a more accessible sound and make such a drastic change sound so effortless, or that the husky twang of Elisa Ambrogio's singing on tracks like "Axis Mundi" would be just as compelling as the fearsome style she used before. Sonic Youth's influence pops up from time to time, especially on "Body Rot," which sounds a little like a scrappy kid sister to Goo's "Kool Thing," but the Magik Markers' new approach feels unique. The band sounds equally comfortable with sexy, bluesy swagger (the excellent "Taste"), sultry piano ballads ("Empty Bottles"), and poetic, stream-of-consciousness jams ("Last of the Lemach Line," "Circle"). If truly experimental music is about change, growth, and openness to all possibilities, then Boss is a very good example of it.
[Ecstatic Peace; 2007]
Despite their long list of releases, Magik Markers have up to now been more compelling live than on record. Even on their best discs, the highs of their free-ranging noise-rock have come with meandering, sometimes off-putting lows. By contrast, the live act of guitarist and singer Elisa Ambrogio and drummer Pete Nolan is constantly fascinating. Their commanding stage presence steamrolls over musical gaps that, without the visceral visuals, might stick out awkwardly on record.
So it figures that, to make an album that holds attention the way their shows do, Magik Markers would have to channel their rambling spontaneity into more conventional tunes. What's so great about BOSS is that even though it is more structured and song-oriented than any previous effort, the band's fiery, scraggly approach remains intact. Paradoxically, by restricting their options (and, coincidentally, losing bassist Leah Quimby), the band has made its music even more open and free.
Such discipline has also made Magik Markers' sound more diverse. Their improv-based records sometimes got stuck in a narrow range of noises, but while BOSS may be a bona-fide rock album, there's lots of different stuff happening here: straight up rockers, punk rants, country-ish acoustics, and even an aching piano ballad. And each has an energy and authority that matches the band's live show.
That said, BOSS isn't a complete split from the band's past. They have veered toward straight rock in the midst of some of their noise jams before, and many tracks here evoke the post-Sonic Youth clang of 2005's I Trust My Guitar Etc. But there's definitely something new going on, and most of it comes from the seductive voice and lyrics of Ambrogio. She's always been a deserving attention-getter, but here her talents seem wider and sharper. Her singing primarily evokes Patti Smith, as do her words, which deftly use rhyme to build intangible meaning. For example, on "Taste" she varies her choruses with tantalizing off-rhymes-- "He had tasted her, tasted her/ Smiled right into the base of her/ He kept racing her, racing her/ And stayed alive; outpacing her"-- while her guitar and Nolan's simple drumming seem to rhyme in turn.
"Taste" may be BOSS's most memorable track, but highlights abound. Opener "Axis Mundi" rises from initial guitar noise into a chugging swing, while "Last of the Lemach Line" sways hypnotically as Ambrogio intones with increasing desperation. Later, Nolan contributes primal piano chords to Amborgio's Cat Power-ish croon on "Empty Bottles", mixing nicely with the glockenspiel of producer Lee Ranaldo. Ranaldo also adds a layer of guitar fire to the manic "Body Rot", which sounds like a punked-out take on Rhys Chatham's minimal trance-rocker "Drastic Classicism".
BOSS stumbles just slightly at its end. The noise essay "Pat Garrett" never really gathers steam, while closer "Circle" comes off as a thinner version of "Lemach Line". But sandwiched in between is the stellar "Bad Dream/Hartford's Beat Suite", a haunting tale of bloody pockets and severed thumbs that approaches the chill of a Johnny Cash tune. Such a comparison might be surprising, but then BOSS is bound to rearrange a lot of people's perceptions of this potent duo.
-Marc Masters, October 04, 2007