The Mag Seven - Cotton Needle Sessions
Record Label: End Sounds
Release Date: October 6, 2009
Instrumental albums are a rare sight in modern music; they've been in decline ever since the A.F.M. strike of 1942, where the focus of the industry shifted towards vocalists, rather than musicians. Consequently, it's difficult to find one made by an artist who is not of the classical or jazz persuasion. The Mag Seven are a musical outfit from Amarillo, Texas, describing themselves as "instrumentalists for hire". While their previous two albums both relied on heavy, fast guitar riffs tinged with surf rock influences, Cotton Needle Sessions is an experiment with jazz.
The advantage of an instrumental album is that there's no need for the musicians to pull punches in order for the vocalist to shine. I'm not saying that makes them better, or non-instrumental albums worse, but without the necessity to make sure the audience can hear the lyrics, every musician has an opportunity to flaunt their skills. The crowd isn't captured by how catchy or poetic the words are, but by the sound of the instruments alone. There are several ways to accomplish this, and one of them is to stick out like a lit cigarette in the middle of a dark night through virtuosity: in this case the trio has decided to blend blatant technical flair with a subtler, more methodical style.
The album starts off slowly, where tracks such as "Lahaina" and "Does This Rag Smell Like Chloroform" ease you into the dark and moody melodies at an almost lethargic pace until eventually, an oppressive, melancholy atmosphere creeps in. They manage to capture a heavy, burdened tone without being suffocating. In comparison, songs like "Deacon Browns" and "Panty Dropper", while not necessarily much faster, give off a vibe of urgency and desperation. There's a constant feeling of being chased and hounded; an impression of days being numbered, with the end of the rope in sight all too soon. Despite the sense of anxiety the songs manage to imply, nothing sounds hurried or frantic. The chords and notes seem to languidly roll, rather than jump, off of the instruments. Every track is smooth and polished; retaining an edge of suspense while staying cool and composed.
Cotton Needle Sessions is grim, bleak, and most importantly, stylish. It would work well as the soundtrack for a black and white noir film; the kind where the protagonist is fully aware he's walking to his own end. The album cover says it all: an old, worn hotel in the middle of the night, where only the flickering sign and lamp illuminate the street - fitting, I think.