Before the year is up, notes on some additional local music that made it memorable. | By Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, John McCracken, Grant Phipps, and Henry Solo
To wrap up the year in Madison music, we wrote earlier this month about our top 20 local records of 2018 and our favorite Madison singles of 2018. In the course of putting those lists together, we also thought of a whole bunch of others that helped to make it a memorable year in local music. Here’s a list of honorable mentions, with notes on a few releases in particular.
Bing Bong, Pop Restoration (self-released)
The vinyl and CD versions of Pop Restoration have completely different track sequences, but (and the latter has three more songs on it). But whatever the order, the debut album from Bing Bong plays nicely as a collection of tightly constructed singles, and as a doggedly humble Midwestern power-pop record. Under the unassuming jangle of Pam Barrett and Danny Hicks’ mostly clean-toned guitars, there’s a solid instinct for songwriting and bright, airy dynamics. Barrett’s lead vocals have a way of bringing a subtle but convincing hint of angst to Bing Bong’s music. And the band’s execution is always just a bit restrained, never flashy or heavy-handed. The guitars on “Spitfire Lover,” for instance, use overdrive to add just a bit of gravel to the proceedings while still leaving plenty of room for all the other elements at work.
On the chorus of “It’s Complicated,” Barrett unpacks a restless romantic ache—”Where’s the joy, where’s the fun, where’s the passion? / What’s it mean when your heart skips a beat? / Is this love? Ain’t it love that you’re after? / What’s wrong with me?”—and balances it with a clear, irrepressible melody. Barrett uses that emotive but buoyant delivery to convey a mix of weariness and resilience on “Many Years,” one of the record’s detours into twangier territory. Bassist Julie Kiland and drummer Brian Bentley inject just the right amount of swagger into “Tangled,” the kind of swagger that gives the song both some heft and an unmistakably playful air. Throughout Pop Restoration, Bing Bong sounds comfortable in just the right way—these musicians are old enough to know when to dial it back a bit, but still enamored of the youthful giddiness of power-pop. —Scott Gordon
Black Cat, Withdraw Your Consent (Rare Plant)
Madison has been blessed with gritty punk this year. The pile-driving thrash of No Hoax (which released its first album, Black Out Tapes, just in time to break up) and the scorched-earth hardcore of No Question played an important role in the local music community in 2018 and made our top 20 list. Just as significant, though, were the plainspoken political diatribes of Black Cat. The band’s debut album, Withdraw Your Consent, explodes with deep-seated lefty rage and a spirit of fresh-faced resolve. Maybe it’s weird to find optimism in a stripped-down punk record that rails against capitalism, nationalism, police violence, and sexism, but as vocalist Veronica Echavarria reminds listeners on the title track, “Power comes from people, nothing more.” Drummer Rob Murphy, guitarist Evan Favil, and bassist Sam Brooks (who also contributes the occasional scream in a back-and-forth with Echavarria) stir up righteous rage on “Marching Orders” and catchy descending riffs on “Transparent.” Black Cat reminds us that there’s no end of good reasons to be angry, and refuses to let us sink into despair. —Scott Gordon
Brahmulus, Green (Lion Of Istan Music)
A new project from two members of Madison hip-hop band Fringe Character, Brahmulus follows the paths of neo soul and rap into strange locales on its debut EP. The songs on Green developed as Greg Brookshire focused harder on songwriting and Ben Sholl delved further into back-end production. No doubt bolstered by their time working together in Fringe Character, their chemistry shines brightly and effortlessly through the EP’s six tracks. On tracks like “WOW,” Brookshire lyrically meanders around Sholl’s vibrant soundscapes, in a fluid and intuitive pairing.
This dynamic intensifies when Brahmulus brings more collaborators into the picture. On the hook of “Chantell,” Elena Ross joins Brookshire in harmony creating a choral effect. Building on Brookshire’s observant and anecdotal verses, the dreaminess of Sholl’s guitar, and arpeggiated synth breakdown at the song’s midpoint, the song becomes sort of galactic gospel piece. Ambitious as it is tranquil, this EP shoots for the stars at times, and rests comfortably in the vastnesses between at others. —Henry Solo
The Central, Sick And Dying (self-released)
Madison-based grindcore/progressive/metal/funk/genre-is-a-myth duo The Central takes an awful lot of liberties with style, direction, and everything in between on Sick And Dying, released back in the spring. In a departure from the frenzy of math-metal captured on 2016’s Discovery Of A Rat, guitarist-vocalist Frankie Furillo and drummer Alex Robert venture into softer sounds and explore a wealth of new ideas. So many new ideas came out of the writing process for Sick And Dying that the band ended up with enough material for yet another album, due out in early 2019. Here’s to another year of Madison’s favorite grindcore gurus. —John McCracken
Exploration Team, Five Songs (self-released)
Exploration Team lasted for only about two years, breaking up when guitarist Ross Adam moved away this fall. The four-piece’s first and last EP, Five Songs, pushes gorgeous clean-toned electric guitars to the front and gradually lets listeners discover the bite underneath. Like one of guitarist Luis Perez’s previous bands, Jonesies, Exploration Team often said the nasty part sweetly. Lead singer and bassist Allison Geyer’s voice somehow manages to provide the tuneful backbone of the songs and a whole additional layer of gauzy atmosphere. On “Brighton Rock,” Geyer pairs a wistful vocal melody with lyrics that evoke murder and espionage: “When I saw you serving tea in that cafe / I knew I had to make you mine / It was either that or have you killed / ‘Cause I couldn’t have you testify.” The country shuffle of “A Million Tears” and propulsive lead-guitar figures of “Old Things” reveal a lot of nuance and variety in Exploration Team’s approach to gentle indie-pop. Perez and drummer Etan Heller have continued to play together in the power-pop outfit According To What, and Geyer has some new solo and collaborative projects in the works. —Scott Gordon
His & Her Vanities, Parts On Display (Science of Sound Records)
Parts On Display was post-punk band His & Her Vanities’ first new release since 2009’s The Mighty Lunge. In that nine-year interval, the band went for at least five without playing together, but the long break didn’t stop His & Her Vanities from moving right on with its evolution. The band’s first two albums, 2002’s self-titled debut and 2004’s A Thought Process, had a delirious pop sensibility, ramming bright melodies into cracked rhythms and sharp, dissonant guitar figures. With Lunge, the band let a lot more anxiety and sadness seep into the music, and Parts keeps building on that emotional depth.
The album starts by taking stock of adversity and offering what you might call a self-pep-talk from guitarist-vocalist Ricky Riemer: “Lay to rest / Broken paths / Claim what’s left / Start again,” he sings on opener “Don’t Settle.” Drummer Sara Quigle, bassist Terrin Riemer, and guitarist Matt Abplanalp bend their expertly off-kilter grooves toward tenderness on “Go Easy On The Fellow,” and the band lurches into a more abrasive stop-start on “Just One More,” one of several moments here that actually sound a whole lot like His & Her Vanities’ earlier days. That’s not to say the band is moving backward here, just finding new ways to blend the playful with the cathartic. —Scott Gordon
John Praw, JP2 (self-released)
As a spiritual aid and financial benefit for a longtime friend’s medical emergency, ambient electronic artist John Praw put out an EP called Necromancy, the immersive synth-drone LP Scions Of Light And Darkness, and an eclectic compilation, JP2, at the tail-end of this year. The releases also unofficially served as a reintroduction to the Madison music community for John Praw, real name John Kruse, who had been so vital to the scene in terms musical advocacy, having founded Mine All Mine Records in 2006 and the short-lived isthmus-centric Lost City Music Festival in 2012.
Over the past few years, Kruse has intermittently dabbled with former Madison cellist/fellow electronic experimenter Patrick Reinholz in an ambient project, Nude Human, and their collaborative sound informs a portion of his recent endeavors. Standouts include the title track from the Necromancy EP, which conjures the atmospheric, forlorn folk of Connecticut-based Giles Corey. Praw cycles through a tenderly melancholic acoustic guitar phrase, layering vocal reverb and distantly warbling synth tones.
The song forecasts the overwhelming vibe on the last and most inclusive release, JP2, an intriguingly avant-garde compilation of material from nearly a seven-year span. While beginning ambitiously with an 11-minute epic of distorted, hyperactive electronica, “Vȁšmašīna,” the majority of the compositions are far more understated, like the downtempo “Coffee.” Its poignant Qchord melody and almost lullingly rhythmic field recordings are a direct line to the aforementioned “Necromancy.”
Praw’s sampling and soundplay on JP2 seem to become increasingly percussive over time; and perhaps nowhere is that more evident than the tuneful ringing on “Bells On Seven,” indebted to Steve Reich’s post-minimalism and Tortoise’s “Ten-Day Interval.” —Grant Phipps
Post Social, Major Congrats (self-released)
A turn towards a heavier, punchier sound somehow worked in a year that saw a swell of cloud-gazing dream pop, a genre that Madison band Post Social already tackled on 2016’s Casablanca. On its second full-length, Major Congrats, Post Social throws in more divergent riffing, anthemic shouting, and a more flexible approach to songwriting. The early highlight “Creeping Up” features dueling guitars that wind towards synthesis, and an instrumental breakdown that benefits from the energy developed by collaborating their entire adult lives. Despite the trek towards punkier sensibilities, the economical and laid-back single “Sand Wand” is the best thing this band has produced so far. The calm precision on display here makes it a rare 5-minute rock song with nothing left to take away. Crooning twang guitar is pleasingly alchemized into a distorted and sticky lead-guitar riff, and there’s even a sense of maturity in the lyrics, as “Makin’ me stable” repeats to the slight fade out. Much of the rest of the album is like if the Feelies were emo, and the final ballad, “Sticky Hands,” serves as a dynamic and emblematic send off to an album that juggles somber introspection alongside earnest celebrations of friendship. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Proud Parents, self-titled (Dirtnap Records)
A few years ago I wanted to root for Proud Parents because co-founders Claire Nelson-Lifson and Tyler Fassnacht (both on vocals and guitar) play off each other with the genuine affection of old friends. But at some point in 2017 it became clear that the band was going to more than fulfill its early promise, tightening up its amiable power-pop and making way for another songwriter and vocalist in drummer Heather Sawyer (also of The Hussy). The band’s self-titled sophomore album is all about striking a balance among those three voices: Fassnacht’s scrappy vulnerability on “Ducktales,” Nelson-Lifson’s step-back-and-reflect approach on “2 Fast 2 Serious,” Sawyer’s mix of cutting insight and whip-smart pop on “Baby.” Nelson-Lifson and Fassnacht’s revisit their duet “Something To Talk About” (which also appeared on the band’s 2015 album Sharon Is Karen)—which is definitely a high point, but the band sounds a lot more interested in branching out and fleshing out the individual, interlocking dimensions of its songwriting. —Scott Gordon
Trapo, Oil Change (self-released)
It is beginning to feel like Trapo, real name Davon Prather, has been on the precipice for a few years now. With artists like this young MC, it is always tempting to project narratives of making—of becoming big enough to take off from places like Madison and land among the stars—onto the music. At times, the music itself encourages this, with triumphant tracks that reflect overtly on struggle, triumph, or a bit of both.
Trapo, to his credit, has avoided this on his first few projects, instead opting to enmesh and immerse the reader in his own universe through fleeting moments and trains of thought, all loosely wrapped in images like shade trees (which is also the title of his 2016 full-length) or romantic interests. Still, commentators and fans are going to do what they are going to do, and on Oil Change it feels like Trapo is processing stagnation and the weight of expectations from people who aren’t in his immediate life.
On the album’s opener, “The Red Carpet,” he raps: “When we need oxygen / And most passing toxicants to cope, I play it cool / Cause y’all gon’ follow rules to you lose / I ignore ’em ’cause my birthday passed / And I ain’t quite made it up to expectation yet.” It feels like he is acknowledging that although he has received accolades for his art from websites like Pigeons & Planes, the growth that he and others expect for him in life and in career is as fleeting as ever. Still, though this weight is a recurring burden in many points in this record, he shirks it stylistically, expanding the variety of his beat selection and his cadences wider than any other project thus far. From sloppy but swaggering “Drunk Punch” to almost Madvillainous “Rain Check,” Trapo boldly resists the added weight of strangers to experiment with his own style. This at the cost of the cohesion he created on Shade Trees and his 2015 debut, The Black Beverly Hills EP, but it is definitely a promising sign for Ford 4 Door, the marquee project that Prather has promised for a while now. —Henry Solo
Various artists, Touching The Singularity (self-released)
Singer-songwriter Olyvia Jaxyn organized this five-track compilation to raise money for Trans Tech Social Enterprises, a Chicago-based organization that advocates for transgender people in the technology industry. Jaxyn opens Touching The Singularity with “Pix,” a new track that follows up their charming debut EP, 2017‘s Lyv. “Pix” stretches Jaxyn’s ethereal vocals between a rich baritone and a more tense-strained falsetto, over fanciful electronic production that evokes doubt and longing. Experimental rock duo “Glassmen” contributes a new track as well, the richly moody “All White, To The Ground,” and DJ/queer dance-party organizer/activist Sarah Akawa offers an eerie and hard-driving original electronic track under the production moniker Saint Saunter. David Poole’s woozy psych-pop track “Running Man” and Romana Shemayev’s baleful “Farewell” add a few more layers to this brief but emotionally and sonically rich collection. —Scott Gordon
More honorable mentions:
Michael Brenneis, Deeds And Endeavors series
Leslie Damaso And Jason Kutz, May Laya
Educational Davis, Sing Bleow Bleow
Kilo aka Skit’Lz, Living In A ReignBow
Anders Svanoe, 747 Queen Of The Skies
Johannes Wallmann, Day And Night
Dequadray White, Dequadray: A Black Sitcom