With sickly-sweet tenor harmonies and accordion swells, Casio-style bom-bim-bom-bim bass, and distorted lap-steel guitar, "Cowboy Nation" marks not just a radical musical departure for multi-media performance ensemble Squonk Opera -- it defines a new genre: post-ironic cowboy cabaret. It's not a style that re-emerges too often on Rodeo Smackdown, the soundtrack, of sorts, to Squonk's latest production of the same name -- a Bush-era retelling of the Minotaur myth set in a rodeo. But moments like "Cowboy Nation," impressionistic set pieces such as the percussion tour "The Rider of the Bull" and its more spooky partner "Bad Mood" (the name of the bull/minotaur), and the set's finest moments, the closing couplet of "Cowboy Gone Loco" and "Build Your Own Labyrinth," separate Smackdown from Squonk's previous recorded output and define it as the best they've done yet.
Don't get me wrong, the becoming-familiar Squonk Opera sound is all over this: Jackie Dempsey's piano-driven songs, spotlight off-Broadway singing (Christine Acosta), warm and chilly moods flavored by synthesizers and real-and-synth wind instruments (Steve O'Hearn), prog-run bass (Nathan Wilson), and varied percussion (Kevin Kornicki). Even that has continued maturing here, with the addition of full-flavored, meaty electronic percussion and more subtle use of synthesized sound.
But whereas previous Squonk releases, such as the most recent Inferno, sometimes felt mired in a borderland between moody prog-pop (Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush) and performance-accompanying mood, Rodeo Smackdown is as much concept album as any sort of accompaniment to its show. So an atmospheric song like "The Accident" still retains its integrity outside of the performance; instrumentals such as the introductory "The Range" don't leave the listener wondering what they're missing; and "Cowboy Nation" or "Build Your Own Labyrinth" could be on indie radio.
Dempsey pointed out before the premier of the stage production of Smackdown that the group hadn't ever really tried writing a country song before -- from the subtle, loving smirk of the disc's genre stabs (the Morricone sax-swirls and rodeo accordion licks), the group did its homework. And it has paid off.