Confession: When the Cloak Ox won City Pages’ Picked to Click new-artists poll in 2011, I made a last-minute decision to bump the high-wired band off my ballot. The quartet’s debut EP, “Prisen,” had certainly made a strong impression with its terse, nervous energy and arty guitar bursts. I just didn’t think the quartet of adventurous indie-rock vets would be in it for the long haul.
Two years later, the Cloak Ox has hauled out a new full-length album that has no chance of getting nixed off my year-end list of best records.
Further proof they mean business, the band members have committed themselves to a little touring behind the record, including January dates with Justin Vernon’s Volcano Choir and a short tour with California experimentalists Why? that kicks off Friday at the Fine Line.
Turns out, though, I wasn’t the only one doubting the duration of the band at first.
“That EP was a little bit of us dipping our toes in,” Cloak Ox leader Andrew Broder admitted earlier this week. “We made it in only a few days, and were very happy with the results, but we really didn’t know where we’d go from there.”
One big reason for the uncertainty was the schedules of guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker and drummer Martin Dosh, each of whom has toured full-time in recent years in Andrew Bird’s band while also fronting their own groups (Alpha Consumer and Dosh, respectively). And, like new dad Broder, each has a family at home.
What’s more, it was no secret that Broder became a little disenchanted with the music business after his experiences with his critically praised but largely overlooked previous band, Fog, which also featured Cloak Ox bassist Mark Erickson, with Dosh and Ylvisaker involved as auxiliary members. Dosh, Erickson and Broder also all used to perform in the late-’90s instrumental band Lateduster.
“I probably tried to be realistic to a fault, curbing any expectations that any big, dazzling industry stuff might happen” with the Cloak Ox, Broder said.
Ultimately, though, Broder’s low professional expectations met head on with his high musical ambitions.
“I sort of found out I’m not the kind of guy who can take music casually,” he said. “I get pretty wrapped up in it.”
You can tell how deeply wound Broder got in the songwriting on his band’s new album, “Shoot the Dog,” issued two weeks ago via co-op-like Minneapolis label Totally Gross National Product. Most of the songs came over a long stretch of 2012, when Broder took time off from performing to welcome the birth of his son.
A clue upfront that this album wasn’t made just for kicks, “Shoot the Dog” opens with a chilling nine-minute track, “Yesterday’s Me,” which finds Broder singing in his usual opaque style about bad memories and a Ground Round waitress. That’s not even the album’s most epic track, either. The nearly eight-minute opus “Andy Broder’s Dream” comes off like a post-punk “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with roller-coastery time changes and a dramatic climax.
“I had different parts of that song floating around for years, and over the course of six or eight months I kept coming back to them and pieced them together,” Broder recalled. The song is now a showpiece for the whole band. “It’s a blast to play live,” he confirmed.
On the shorter side, “Josephine” offers a delightfully spastic rock groove, while the single “Pigeon Lung” — in steady rotation at 89.3 the Current — boasts a New Wave-y pop sound around Television-style guitar interludes.
The band just issued a video for “Pigeon Lung” filmed in a strip-mall pizzeria, starring Lizzo of the Chalice as a waitress and a roughed-up, gray-haired man who gets her to dance with him. Both the video and the tune’s lyrics — “I see the grind made a maggot of you / I won’t let it make a maggot of me” — hint at an overall theme Broder sees on “Shoot the Dog.”
“There’s a lot in there about personal freedom, and trying to liberate yourself from within,” he said. “A lot of the people in the songs are confined or bound to something, and there’s a lot of duality or people living parallel lives.”
Listen close, and you’ll hear some well-known guest singers, including TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe (“King Rope”), Justin Vernon of Bon Iver fame (“A.B.’s Dream”) and Dark Dark Dark’s Nona Marie (several songs). “I didn’t want all the vocal overdubs to be just me singing,” Broder said.
After Friday’s show, it’s unclear when the Cloak Ox will have another gig in town. A new Dosh record arrives Oct. 22 (“Milk Money”), and there’s plenty more keeping the guys busy. Still, Broder is confident the band is beyond its toe-dipping phase.
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