Raccoons – Mother


Improvisation is such a beautiful thing. It has the ability to alienate, disconcert, and amaze listeners all at once. I’m not talking about jazz improvisation that relies on scales and cookie-cutter progressions, but rather non-structured, atonal improvisation. Sure, it may seem like the term improvisation is essentially a blank check for musicians to dick around on their instruments, but there is a palpable spirit brewing underneath each random hit and plucked string that reveals not only the musician’s talent but also mindset. However, reaching this point of appreciation and understanding requires a substantial amount of retrospective concentration. Released by Crouton Records, Raccoons’ Mother is an album that begs such attention.
Crouton Records is a very unique record label, specializing in the merger of creative music and literature. The label exhibits a vast assortment of styles ranging from electro-acoustic, free-jazz, and rock to experimental, ambient, and the avant-garde. Each release is presented in hand-designed packages, usually in limited quantities. In other words: Crouton Records = ingenuity.
The label relies heavily on the prolific and ubiquitous Jon Mueller. He is the auctorial brains behind the fiction for most of the Crouton releases. Though best known for his inspiring drum chops for indie-rock outfit, Pele, Mueller also plays with Telecognac, Collections of Colonies of Bees, and the group in question, Raccoons, all of which are very esoteric. The remainder of Raccoons is rounded out by bohemians Chris Rosenau and Hal Rammel. Rosenau joins Mueller in the aforementioned groups and also plays the scarf-wearing lead guitarist of Pele.
Mother is a special edition two-disc set, the follow-up to last year’s eponymous debut album. It more or less continues down the same path of modest improvisation, albeit augmented with double the music. Disc one sees Raccoons in a live setting, documenting a performance from late last year at Mother Fools Coffeehouse in Madison, WI. Disc two, on the other hand, is a studio album that the group recorded in a remodeled barn and at A Women’s Locker Room studio, owned by Rosenau and Mueller. Both discs feature zero overdubs; what’s on the discs is improvisation in its rawest, purest form.
Rather than the static & electronics heard on O’Rourke-related improvisation albums, such as The Return of Fenno’berg, Mother relies entirely on organic sounds. According to Crouton, the live disc features Mueller using teeth and balloons to play the drums; Rammel using “drones and swoops” with a single string guitar; and Rosenau using files and a thumb piano to play the six-string acoustic – hardly your conventional dactyl group. If you think that’s weird, check out what they are using for the studio disc: tinfoil, balloons, party favors, wood, and plastic. Mother is essentially a bricolage of party toys, but it’s not, by any means, a party album. Although only a trio, Raccoons manage to flesh out its music, not only with instruments but with minimalism. The rests in each song are as vital to its dichotomy of silence and noise as the instruments themselves. Everything seems to play randomly – hence the improvisation aspect – but as the songs begin to wane, retrospection kicks in and the sounds start to take shape. It takes patience to achieve this realization, but the ideas slowly crystallize with each subsequent listen. It’s this ability to see the big picture that is important, and you can’t really grasp it until the music has been repeated. The album is not as engaging and entertaining as the aforementioned The Return of Fenno’berg, but it certainly makes up for it with its unique take on repetition and subtle dynamics.
The arcane pieces shine brilliantly when the group uses dissonance and counterpoint to their advantage. Every now and again, the collective will mutually crescendo using what little pieces they have for their contrapuntal arrangements. On disc two’s closer, “Thirteen Hour Hunt,” it takes over 11 minutes to build up to a beautiful wash of cymbals, feedback, and random noise. The din continues for over two minutes, when suddenly the song calms to a pulsating feedback. It’s hard enough to build roaring crescendos with the conventional rock tools, but Raccoons manage with minimal instrumentation and a modest decorum, rather than electric guitar solos and Buckley-esque falsettos.
On one hand, you can listen to Mother and dismiss it as an unsubstantial, pretentious dalliance – a fecal matter that is expelled from the body after digestion. On the other hand, you can appreciate the album for what it is meant to be: songwriting at its most intimate and most beautiful construct. There’s no structure, no verses, no choruses, no chords, no middle-eight, no face paint-it’s just free-form music, unrestrained and unbound. This is not music to hum along with; it’s music to experience.
Let this review serve as a caveat: Mother is not for everyone. Listening to the album is akin to looking at a chopped-up painting, piece-by-piece, analyzing each bit until the whole is realized. Brilliance can only truly be seen from hindsight, and that’s the feeling you’ll receive after listening to this double-disc set. If you don’t concentrate, you will likely forget that you’re even listening to music, but rather random sounds and indiscernible noises. As for you improvisational aficionados, Raccoons may have created just what you’re looking for.