Dear Mr. Watterson unleashes on a new EP

“Confusion Perfected” is an all-out blitz of scuzzy, twee-inflected punk.

“Confusion Perfected” is an all-out blitz of scuzzy, twee-inflected punk.

Photo: The EP’s album art is repeated three times. The cover is a black-and-white photograph of two people in a bathroom. One crouches in the background, looking at his phone, eating a slice of pizza. Nearest to the camera, there’s a body strewn across the floor next to a toilet bowl. In the upper left corner the name of the band and EP appear in simple multicolor block lettering.

On September 22, Madison band Dear Mr. Watterson released its first official EP, Confusion Perfected, and inadvertently sent me hurtling back. In my first several listens to the release, I realized that I’ve been using two terms to describe some of the music I’ve covered for Tone Madison. I wanted to provide some necessary context for those terms, as they directly apply to Confusion Perfected.

Before writing for Tone Madison, I ran a blog that focused on DIY and DIY-adjacent punk acts who I felt were being underserved by national media. Most of those acts fit into a very specific niche that I’d shorthanded to “basement pop” and “basement punk,” two subgenres that were indebted, in varying degrees, to power-pop, punk, and indie rock.

Basement punk/pop’s modesty typically discouraged wider audience appeal, while the acts that fell under this umbrella retained a sharpness that excluded the grungier leanings of their close relatives in the “garage” adjacents. Mid-fi and lo-fi recording production played a critical role in finalizing these definitions. Through the process of narrowing down the scope of what was piquing my attention, I realized few bands connected with me more than the ones that split the difference between those territories.

In 2007, the legendarily wild Madison act Sleeping In The Aviary released their debut album, Oh, This Old Thing?, which teemed with the type of hyperactive scrappiness that made this range of music so appealing to me. Over the 14 years that have followed its release, few Madison bands have come particularly close to nestling into the hyper-specific middle ground between basement pop and basement punk.

But Dear Mr. Watterson, a four-piece act that has previously released a demo collection, just hit that elusive liminal target with exacting precision via Confusion Perfected.

Guitarist Chris Tiller, guitarist Callen Williams, bassist Haley Dezonia, and drummer Cam Scheller-Suiter comprise Dear Mr. Watterson. The band’s named after the celebrated 2013 documentary about the beloved Calvin & Hobbes cartoonist (which was recently memorably satirized by Documentary Now!). Williams, Dezonia, and Scheller-Suiter all contribute vocals across the EP. An extensive list of familiar guest vocalists dot the release, including Interlay guitarist and solo artist Indigo Smith Oles, Maggie Denman (ex-Proud Parents, Margerat Dryer, According To What, etc.), Mike Pellino (Miyha, Tippy, We Should Have Been DJs, Christian Dior, etc.), and several others. Unsurprisingly, given the caliber of the EP’s contributing cast, Confusion Perfected is a blast.

“Cat In Obsolete Bath”—initially released as a standalone single in 2019—comes tearing out of the gates with unchecked urgency, a sneering no-fucks-given attitude, and a whirlwind of riffs that fall somewhere between early Los Campesinos! and late-career Gold-Bears, echoing some of the twee, sugar-rushed sensibilities of both acts. From the mad sprint of the opener, Confusion Perfected never really experiences much of a slowing. Even the acoustic middle marker “What Do You Mean?”—which the band has significantly reworked from its demo version—has its guitar pattern brushing a few ticks past mid-tempo and incorporates a brief but highly effective use of bells, recalling a certain spiritual ancestor.

Confusion Perfected‘s outsize energy, riff-happy approach, teeth-gnashing ferocity, and unabashed scruffiness place it in territory that has rarely been inhabited this strikingly since Titus Andronicus’ 2008 debut The Airing Of Grievances. In lesser hands, the end result of that combination usually winds up being an abject mess that amounts to ambitious ideas and poor execution. Dear Mr. Watterson adeptly avoids that trap, channeling a playful precociousness that evens out the material’s jittery nature. No song on Confusion Perfected better exemplifies that dynamic better than its closer (another reworked holdover from the band’s 2018 demo), “Cigarettes In Unusual Places.” To wit:

Foreign beings at the corners of our eyes again.
We kind of had plans for Friday night, but don’t worry about it.
It turns out that shooting star I wished on, well it was just a spaceship all along.
We wander haunted streets all night, our stomachs filling up with spider bites,
and I don’t know why you never say goodbye.
Well, goodnight.

“Cigarettes In Unusual Places” is a perfect kiss-off for a surprisingly galvanizing EP that’s not afraid to balance the giddiness of its music with disquieting lyrics. That trait plays an especially strong role on two tracks appearing here for the first time: “Truth and Reconciliation” and “Inside Out.” In the former, a deliberately opaque opening leads to a sobering conclusion: “I’ve loved some people and I tried to save them / But now it’s time for my truth and reconciliation.” “Inside Out,” under the veneer of Confusion Perfected‘s brightest riffs and quickest tempo, languishes in the humiliation of existential reckoning.  The lines “Oh what a place to be where life and death are the little things / It means anything” course vehemently underneath an insistent back-and-forth call of “Living. Dying. Living. Dying.”

Music with roughshod, energy-heavy aesthetics tend to thrive in live settings. Anyone interested in seeing if Dear Mr. Watterson is up to the task of delivering on that front won’t have to wait long. The band will be appearing as support for a show at the High Noon Saloon on Thursday, September 30 to help celebrate the release of another excellent Madison-based EP: Able Baker’s Spiral Bound Songs.

Taken as a whole, Confusion Perfected operates as a reminder that pointed introspection can be flamboyant. Breathless in its sweeping waves of exhilaration and studied in its cautious pessimism, the EP gains an additional layer of momentous purpose by exploiting its own improbable dichotomy. As the music verges on euphoria, the lyrical narrative drives down into bleak mundanity with acute awareness. Assiduous in its execution from the amp crackle of the opening seconds to the receding gang vocals of its closing, Confusion Perfected is a startling show of strength from a band that has fully embraced a breakneck stride. 

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