s neat an instrument as the theremin is, some of its mystique vanishes when you first hear a musical saw; the two don't produce the exact same sound, but it's remarkably close. Bowing a saw may not be as visual intriguing as the arcane hand gestures required to play theremin, but it's also an easier, cheaper and more practical way to get that spooky sound.
That sort of back-to-basics practicality fits well with Madagascar's music. Amidst the accordion, glockenspiel, ukulele and wordless vocals that make up their music nestles the musical saw, sounding as always like the world's most deranged opera singer, minus the multiple octave range. But the unearthly sound doesn't come from costly Communist machinery, it issues from a humble carpenter's tool.
Of course, Madagascar's choice of instruments makes the critic's job both easier and harder. Just by listing the ingredients you have a decent idea of what the recipe is, and the band doesn't pull any fast ones; this is a brief but wonderful set of slow, waltzing music, by turns creepy and sad, that pulls you into a particular, possibly fictional socio-temporal space from the first notes of “All That Spring You Could See Halley's Comet.” The word “gypsy” has been thrown around a lot in reviews for Forced March, and although you can instantly hear why, that same obviousness doesn't leave us with a lot to talk about after the comparison has been noted.
So take it for granted that Madagascar sound like street music from a mythical, lugubrious Eastern European city stranded somewhere between the time of the Magyars and the time of the Soviet Union and dig a little deeper. As you slowly get acquainted with this music and its careful rhythms, its focus on repetition of phrases as a means to beauty, its sometimes aridly intellectual (as opposed to visceral) bent, you may notice that this is post-rock as pre-rock, that if you took these songs and performed them on more conventional instruments you'd have something not miles away from Tortoise or a vocal-less, gentler Spiderland. They're accidental cousins, not distant ones, and the perky/menacing sound of a song like “Bear Goes Shopping” suddenly makes a lot more sense when considered in this light.
The overall mood is peaceful, or maybe reserved, but the music does splay out in different directions. So “Our First Communist Psychic Researcher” is a trip down a long, dark hallway to the Politburo office, “A Brief Stroll – The Velvet Parasol” is jaunty enough to soundtrack the Teddybears' Picnic, “I'm So Tired Of Violets (Take Them Away)” is the circus leaving town, and “When The Telegram Arrived That She Was Dying” shares an emotional tenor as well as naming conventions with the sadder, quieter moments of Explosions In The Sky.
Taken together, however, these 33 minutes play out more like a day in the life than a kind of emotional Greatest Hits. It's a little unsettling to use Forced March as background music, especially when trying to sleep, but it produces interesting dreams. And that's a trade off more people should be willing to make.