Bonfire Madigan – 88 EP

88 sounds even more like the work of Madigan Shive almost exclusively, despite the presence of five people in the band. Shive plays cello, guitar, and sings, and she does it with such authority that her presence is palpable on these tracks. Few people have the presence that Shive has, and it’s here that most people draw comparisons to folkster Ani Difranco. Like Difranco, Shive’s voice and attitude dominates her music, almost making you forget that there’s more to the music than what she alone offers up.
The music itself is an odd take on chamber-folk. Led by Shive’s cello and Sheri Ozeki’s contrabass, the band has the potential of completely creating how people view strings in a rock-styled band. However, the emphasis on strings also means that the guitars are less focused, often mixed too far back and way behind Shive’s voice. Production is the real flaw on this release, but behind the quiet and roomy feel of these songs, Shive created some very clever and powerful folky pop tunes.
The opener, “88 Arbitrary Configurations,” is all strings. Led by urgent, intense cello and contrabass, the song has a very powerful feel backed by Shive’s in-your-face vocals. Still, it retains a subtlety and sparseness, allowing the strings to do all the work. Much more playful, “Tiger” uses lap steel guitar and some plucked cello along a rolling, bouncy, folksy beat, while “Homefullness” brings in electric guitar for a richer, more encompassing feel. Shive’s voice here even sounds like Difranco at times. The folk approach comes back on “Vigil,” a lovely, personal tune that has hints of 70s folk and 90s garage rock all at once. They close with “O’Sanity,” a Yoko Ono cover, only with more strings. It actually sounds quite neat.
88 is a tease for the band’s 2003 release Covert Constellations. Along with the homemade feel (1000 of these EPs are packaged in handprinted tri-fold paper), the songs lack some of the bigtime production feel of their Kill Rock Stars release Saddle the Bridge. I suspect we’ll hear more of the instruments on the full-length, but the more relaxed production emphasizes Shive’s voice and the more charismatic qualities it possesses. It also gives the songs more of a down-home folk feel, which works well. Not as good as Saddle the Bridge, it still shows that Covert Constellations can be really spectacular.