Every music career has its own unique arc, but artists who stick around long enough are guaranteed to experience a creative lull following a peak. Fans of Juniper Tar will have to keep waiting for that lull. While the band has recorded plenty of good material in the past, Since Before makes the group’s back catalog seem a bit timid and preparatory. The 2010 release The Howl Street EP was a major step forward from the band’s 2008 debut, but even it sounds languorous and uncertain compared with the new album. This is a group whose reputation rides on its rich vocal harmonies, which are as good as ever; the songwriting and conceptual prowess have finally caught up.
Since Before is a concept album, one that weaves its recurring themes into a looser, less obvious web than most. It’s arranged into four distinct parts. The first three tracks are probably the most conventionally catchy tunes—relatively upbeat in mood, but never quite shrugging off the almost dejected yearning that lurks throughout most of the album. The guitar interplay in “The Dullest Cleaver” and “Canting” is Grateful Dead-like at times, but more melodic and edgy. This has never been such a striking element of JT’s recorded output before, but it fits nicely into the band’s evolutionary path.
Next, there’s the four-song title suite, made up of two markedly oppositional rock songs—the gently agonizing “Black Pain Tea” and the hard-driving, Tom Petty-esque “After The Tremors”—bookended by a couple of atmospheric piano/guitarscape instrumentals that could be two parts of the same piece. These are the type of contentious, noisy interludes that get “songwriter” bands in trouble—only, these aren’t background experiments bereft of composition, and they don’t drone on and on. They’re actually worth paying attention to.
“There Was Blood” is a gentle respite from the feedback, though it’s anything but comforting. Instead, its haunting, atmospheric twang is akin to early My Morning Jacket. “Weeds” and “Black Pain” are a couple of the most compositionally intricate Tar tunes yet, replete with Thin Lizzy-style twin lead-guitar bits. And the way “Black Pain” creeps up on listeners amounts to a cathartic reprise of the album’s most memorable motif.
The predictable thing would’ve been to put that catharsis at the end of the album, but instead, there’s a three-song denouement that’s every bit as moody and dynamic as what precedes it. “Residents” sounds like a new beginning; it might be the best song on the album. The track is simply an introductory verse followed by a single point driven home over and over again, building tension and ending in what would be a maddening lack of resolution if not for the instrumental coda “Past,” which is also an echo of the other two ambient tracks.
At a time when the EP is hipper than the LP, Since Before is a best-of-both-worlds achievement. The separate sections could all function as self-contained movements, but the thematic threads that tie them together make a strong case for the continued relevance of the almighty album. Such lofty ideals aren’t apparent in the music, though; Juniper Tar cruises through the record with the relaxed confidence that comes from knowing you’ve made your most definitive statement so far.
Juniper Tar celebrates the release of Since Before April 27 at Turner Hall.