Mag Tard’s “Did You Mean Mustard?”
Macon, Georgia’s own Mag Tard releases a brand new EP chock full of goodness. Check out a guest writer’s review of it!Guest Writer
out of 10
Did You Mean Mustard?
June 3, 2011
Mag Tard is chock full of musicians who have a bounty of musical ideas. Side projects of the band include: Citizen Insane, Trendlenberg, cosmobunny, [RE]peater (and these are just the side projects I’ve personally witnessed). The Macon, Georgia based, super-group-esque lineup is known locally for their fecundity, and the band’s second and newest EP, Did You Mean Mustard?, is teeming with various musical ideas. But here’s the catch for some:
Mag Tard doesn’t have an easy to define genre.
This is a common observation made by many (both band members and fans, actually), and for people troubled by this “difficulty,” this new set of songs offers little relief. But what is it about the band’s sound that is hard to label? The opening moments of the EP provide an example of what’s puzzling for many about Mag Tard’s approach.
In the lead track, “Aardvark,” (a song that largely avoids pop music compositional conventions like verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist, Chris Nylund, begins with a discordant, fingerpick-style guitar line that is interspersed with metal-like blasts of tom and kick fills from drummer, Vinnie Thomas (the fills are buried in the mix — unlike what’s normal for a metal band — probably because, for all the things they are, Mag Tard is not a metal band by any stretch of the imagination). Thomas, however, drums like someone who would feel right at home playing for a metal band, i.e., he has chops and hits hard. For the next part of the intro, the band crescendos then rides a groove that’s on top of the beat. The snare hits on the downbeats, saxophonist, Dan Zook, honks along right in time, and the guitar plays a slightly distorted rhythm part which lays out the eight-beat-per-change chord progression, while the bass adds a little movement… this is punk-inspired hard rock (with sax), right?
As soon as this groove is established, Thomas switches to cross-sticking, and Nylund comes in with his characteristic droning vocal approach. By droning, I mean, it’s as if Nylund finds a musical note that creates the effect he wants for the underlying music bed, and repeats the note with interesting rhythms but surprisingly few moving or deviating note changes. Point is: the song does not sound like punk or hard rock anymore.
I only described the first thirty seconds or so of the album, but these counter intuitive zigs and zags continue across much of this seven song EP. Therefore, unless one is satisfied using some so-broad-it-has-little-meaning label, like “rock,” then thinking about Mag Tard in terms of genre offers little. For many, this is hard to accept. Many people like to understand who to compare a band to in order to comparatively and qualitatively assess the music. For those who think this way, there’s a lot about the musical choices on Mustard that will cause frustration. I’ve already mentioned the surprising juxtapositions and changes in “Aardvark” and other songs, though not all, operate similarly.
In “Step Out,” bassist, Justin Cutway, begins the song with an earnestly upbeat vocal before the band builds up to a sudden and, in some ways, antithetical half-time feel over which Nylund croons. This change was jarring on first listen, but repeated spins have made this one of the EP’s more satisfying moments. It sets up the give-and-take between Nylund’s and Cutway’s melodic approaches to the song’s music. The song builds to a multi-melodic (these guys don’t usually do multi-part harmony group vocals), but rather, the approach is reminiscent of a lively late-night, alcohol-fueled discussion in which all parties are so excited about what they have to say, no one’s doing much listening. Nylund then exclaims, “Freak out!,” and the cacophony really begins. The sax, bass, and drums are so independent of one another it seems the only thing they’re listening to is the click track. The guitar does a chromatic build up, and the band moves to a second chorus, repeats the intro as an outro, then fades.
“Sneak Attack Gone Bad” begins with bass chords (always fun to hear) and a half-time snare shuffle with a solid verse melody from Nylund. Throughout the song, Vinnie shifts the downbeat of the song from half-time to double-time and back to the initial shuffle, and the melody repeats and somehow strengthens with each change Vinnie makes. The song ends (with no prompting from Nylund, this time) with a freak out sax line that could be called a solo if the song didn’t end before Zook’s fingers even have a chance to warm up.
Mag Tard is not, on the songs described above, a pop-oriented rock band (despite the short run-times of the songs). This is because each time the band hits a solid groove, they quickly move on to something else, sometimes never going back to the introduced idea, then, just as quickly, they end the song. What they are is a band who seem to be aware of their abundance of musical ideas and are determined not to become just another dismissible jam or prog rock band. Which was a good decision, because if Mag Tard did fully realize every musical idea they have, the likely result would be some ill-advised approximation of Umphrey’s McGee (with sax). In Zook, they have a saxophonist who rarely plays anything normally considered a solo (thereby avoiding the jam band feel a lot of soloing would add). Rather, he riffs around like a lead-guitarist would in a conventional four-piece rock outfit. Hell, he even plays his sax through a guitar amp along with a digital effects petal. A unique approach that works.
These songs, though, only describe half of the Mag Tard equation on Mustard. The other half is more cohesive and easier to define and comprehend, i.e., more accessible. “Stayed at Home,” “Return of the Don,” “Eleanor,” and “Send It Home” make up the other half of the album’s split-personality which is a kind of mid-tempo, post-grunge alternative rock. Don’t let this description scare you off — they do it well.
Throughout many of this other set of songs, Vinnie’s drumming is interesting and provides enough movement to keep things from entering “dad-rock” territory (though, he does stick his toe over the “overplaying line” a few times, notably on “Return of the Don”).
On this group of songs, the guys do conform to the verse/chorus/bridge pop formula that they eschew in the songs described above. As a group, these songs end at the expected time, build in the expected way, and lyrically, they discuss the expected topics for the mood of the songs. Everything’s in its right place, so to say. If there’s a downside, it’s that many of these sounds and approaches are a little threadbare. Though, if you’re one of the people described above that are puzzled by Mag Tard’s hard to describe sound, then maybe this familiarity will be welcomed.
The stand out track amongst these midtempo songs is “Send It On.” The band here allows Nylund to engage his inner Springsteen. The rhythm section sounds mature, hitting all the right rhythms at all the right times, and the momentum of this mostly two chord song builds upon itself (as any great mostly two chord song should). The song wraps up the EP with a hair-raising, harmonica-led finale.
The tough spot Mag Tard has entered with Mustard is that those inclined to seek out experimentalism in music may be bored by the midtempo songs and those who want familiarity will be put off by the quirky choices made in the other half of the album. And it’s a rare breed who will want both elements equally expressed on one short EP by an upstart band. But this is more of a concern for Mag Tard’s eligibility for mass market success not an indictment against the quality of the music itself with is enjoyable — especially after a few listens which help the listener orient themselves to the band’s unique approach. Mag Tard does both sounds justice with true inventiveness in spots (especially in the compositions), and when it’s time to settle into accessibility, they can do that, too.