The new album from Cemetery Improvement Society is one of the most ambitious recordings ever released by a Madison-based band. Following closely on the heels of the debut Lonely Dog Island, J.A.N.E. is a concept album and, in addition to the dense atmospheres the band obviously labored to create, the research and creativity that went into this is simply stunning.
This might be a must-listen for music fans but it won’t be an easy one. The album comes with a warning label, not so much because there is sporadic profanity, but because the subject matter is so unsettling.
J.A.N.E. is the aural equivalent of the film Blue Velvet or even the television series The Shield and would make an interesting movie on its own. It’s shockingly real, sparing no detail as it traces the incidents surrounding a young prostitute. The acronym is important as well: Just Another Neglected Existence is a fitting synonym for what is a masterful fictional documentary. The duo of Marc Claggett (7-string guitar/samplers/programming) and Brad Hawes (drums/percussion/keys/sampler/programming) collaborated with Jessica Knox who produced a sixteen-page “diary” that gives the backdrop to the story in eerily effective scribbles and illustrations. The entire diary is available on TCIS’s mySpace and is essential to understanding the concept.
Musically, the album gets more adventurous than Lonely Dog Island, the nature of the concept’s “chapters” resulting in a more song-based approach. As it is, the album’s fifteen tracks (plus four cleverly inserted “PSAs) play out over the course of more than an hour. The PSAs add a bit of dark humor to the story. There are more guitars in these electronic excursions and the album is primarily instrumental with the liberal addition of sound bites. By the album’s seventh track, “Blade,” the music gets more effective at portraying the events of the story as things start spiraling down. Here guest Joel Shanahan adds some tasty guitar lines to the soulful, streetwise backdrop while the theramin exacerbates the absurdity of the situation. “Pretty” follows with Claggett and Russell Paul turning in impressive guitar performances, effectively expressing the mounting tension and desperation and marking the turning point in the album’s narrative.
Other guests make appearances. Charles Prasalowicz (from metal band the Unnecessary Gunpoint Lecture) provides vocals to “Work,” an especially frightening and demented entry. Vocals are also provided by Jeff Goldsmith on “Christmas Hill,” which succeeds in revealing the fantasies and childlike reversions of the protagonist. Kevin McDonnell adds bass to “Pimp Killer” and Scott Cannaday (from The Projection People and Revolving Doors), who also produced, engineered and mixed the recording, adds keys to “Down to Sleep,” the album’s morose finale.
The Cemetery Improvement Society ran the table in the electronic categories at the 2010 Madison Area Music Awards and deservedly so. They are fresh, ambitious, inspired and, like so many contemporary bands do, blend numerous styles into a conglomerate whole. With J.A.N.E., the Cemetery Improvement Society has taken that approach to a new level, creating a strangely beautiful work of art out of a fictional existence that couldn’t be uglier.