Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Ever since John Cage composed the mind-curdling nothingness of 4’33”, it’s been clear that experimental musicians tend to have a peculiar sense of humor. Maybe the jokes are a way to break the awkward tension that inevitably results from most experimental sounds. Or perhaps after a long day of busting artistic conventions, they’re happy to try busting a few guts. Magik Markers, an experimental rock duo out of Hartford, Conn., has displayed a penchant for sophomoric silliness: Road Pussy and If It’s Not A Ford It Sux are among their indiscriminate effluvia of CD-R releases. It doesn’t take a geologist to see that Magik Markers is riffing on the various notions of “rock” on its latest, Balf Quarry, named for their hometown stone mine. The “rock” concept is carried even further by the cover image, which depicts Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Idéal, built over the course of 33 years with rocks that Cheval found along his postal route. High-minded and oblique, experimental rock’s brand of humor is not exactly Dr. Demento fare. Sonic Youth, which has served as the Markers’ unofficial band mentor, is partly to blame. Experimental rock’s elder statesmen have been responsible for clunky zingers like “Mariah Carey & The Arthur Doyle Hand Cream” and “Tuff Titty Rap” (from the side project/Madonna-nod Ciccone Youth). On Balf Quarry, the Magik Markers’ most obvious stab at yucks is “The Lighter Side…Hippies,” a tribute to the late Mad Magazine cartoonist, Dave Berg, and an acerbic critique of the Aquarian Age. Guitarist/vocalist Elisa Ambrogio tears into poor ol’ CSNY, hardcore punk-style, with “You had a revolution in your head/Too bad you couldn’t make it out of bed/Cokeheads sang ‘Teach Your Children Well’/And wonder now how it all went to hell.” Ouch. Ambrogio’s singing style often and aptly gets compared to Kim Gordon’s. On the opening pair of heavy psych blues numbers, “Risperdal,” and “Don’t Talk In Your Sleep,” she sounds more like Jennifer Herrema and Isobel Sollenberger from Bardo Pond. Named after a drug used to treat adolescent schizophrenia (the laughs never stop!), “Risperdal” is an example of the Magik Markers at their most confident. Displaying the same coherence, efficiency, and power found on their last (and still best) album, BOSS, Ambrogio sings, “Here they come with their GTOs/Their hair parted in neat white rows/Hallway Gods in real cool clothes.” Balf Quarry’s psychedelic, but structured, sound is due in part to producer Scott Colburn, who worked with the tripped-out tricksters Sun City Girls. Low-key songs like “Psychosomatic” and “State Numbers” balance out the outré rock songs on Balf Quarry. The Markers, prone to long rock excursions when performing live, keep almost all of the songs here short and sweet. The exception, the 10-minute album closer, “Shells,” is anything but a laugher. It begins by sounding like a slightly discordant take on Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” before Ambrogio’s somber recitations about birds kick in. It’s moody and downright mature. The knack for heavy riffs and musical cohesiveness on Balf Quarry are evidence that the Magik Markers, despite some forced attempts at jocularity, aren’t kidding around.