The low-budget sci-fi classic “Primer,” new music from Johannes Wallmann, and more events of note in Madison this week.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20
During his tenure as the leader of UW-Madison’s jazz studies program, pianist and composer Johannes Wallmann has gotten a remarkable amount of original work done. In addition to frequent live gigs and collaborations on and off campus, Wallmann has composed and recorded in a variety of styles. On 2018’s Day And Night and 2015’s The Town Musicians, he explored the capacity of small groups (mostly quintets) to explore complex harmonic ideas while leaving plenty of room for improvisation and flexibility. Always Something, also from 2015, offered a refreshingly nimble take on big-band jazz, and Wisconsin musicians dominated its lineup. Wallmann mixed up a variety of formats, from small groups to vocal jazz to spoken word, on 2018’s Love Wins, which drew on his experiences as a plaintiff in Wisconsin’s federal marriage-equality lawsuit.
In fact, Wallmann has released more music since coming here in 2012 than beforehand, all while working to re-energize UW’s jazz program and build connections between the local music community and the sometimes siloed-off academic music world. Experimenting with format and lineup is the norm for Wallmann’s efforts as a bandleader—for instance, 2010’s The Coasts used a “brasstet” lineup that put trumpet, tuba, and trombone in the foreground, lending eerie and atmospheric layers even to brisk numbers like opening track “The Docks (Oakland).” All this variety makes Wallmann’s approach as a composer tough to pin down. But in just about any format he excels at balancing sharp, immediate interplay with more elusive ideas that patiently unfold over the course of a piece, whether it’s the conversational flow of Day And Night‘s “Night And Day” or the slap-happy turbulence of Love Wins‘ “The Seventh Circuit,” which incorporates spoken word from Madison’s Rob Dz and samples of federal court arguments.
In a concert this Thursday at the Hamel Music Center, Wallmann will be rolling out another new set of compositions, this time for a combination of jazz quintet and 14-piece string section. The quintet part of it reaches across his connections in both the local and New York jazz communities: Madison bass MVP Nick Moran, drummer Allison Miller, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. All of them except Miller have played on one or more of Wallmann’s recent releases as a bandleader, so it’ll be interesting to see how their chemistry combines with the strings, conducted by Michael Dolan. There’s also no telling how Wallmann’s voice as a composer will translate to yet another ambitious stretch into new territory, but this free show is an exciting opportunity to find out. —Scott Gordon
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21
Beginning in a Chicago college dorm in the late 2000s, the story of Ratboys is a familiar one: Members meeting early in their school years, releasing sparse demos and EPs, and formulating a sound of their own in a sea of indie hyphen everything. The result of that is a calculated indie-rock sound where a penchant for precision meets an affinity for deeply personal songwriting. By 2015, the band’s six year slow burn of demos and EPs caught fire with Ratboys’ debut full length album, AOID. Wisely drawing on the impeccable melodies guitarist/vocalist Julia Steine crafts alongside the band’s genuine, poetic lyricism, AOID proved Ratboys were thoughtful. In pairing that thoughtfulness with catchy hooks on tracks like “Tixis” and “Postman,” the band showed they were immediate as well.
Ratboys used their sophomore effort, 2017’s GN, to write songs with more linear narratives. “Crying About Planets” sneaks up to the six-minute mark with the story of Antarctic exploration and loss, while “Peter The Wild Boy” evokes the image of a feral child in Germany and develops into a swelling, string-driven song about time and place. “Control,” ostensibly drawn from the band members’ own lived experiences, centers around a childhood memory and questions the push and pull of the universe.
Ratboys will be releasing their third album, Printer’s Devil, on February 28. Steiner and co-founder Dave Sagan are still impressive as a duo, but have expanded the project into a full band for live shows, creating an effective wall of sound that suits the album’s first singles. On “I Go Out At Night,” driving bass lines push the song forward as gleaming, towering guitar parts cut through Steiner’s melancholy delivery. “Alien With A Sleep Mask On” features a larger-than-life chorus, as Steiner steers the song towards a focus on a needed change. Madison-based indie-pop practitioners Combat Naps will open this show with their irreverent approach to soft and soothing songwriting. —John McCracken
Consider the teaser for Shane Carruth’s microbudget sci-fi art house debut, Primer: “What happens if it actually works?” The question seems less rhetorical than a typical promotional invitation and more like a genuine motivating force in the creation of the film, famously made on 16mm for a mere $7,000 back in 2004 when it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. With those rigid production constraints, there would seem to be little room for error or embellishment, and yet the film succeeds exponentially in its high-minded, wry, yet nerve-wrecking time travel concept. More than 15 years later, it remains one of the most inspiring thrillers of the twenty-first century.
Carruth immediately drops audiences into a conversation between four engineers, who expound a superconductor box that nullifies gravity. As part of their home cottage industry, their discourse is obviously loaded with nods to physics and the scientific method. But while it may quickly be construed as impenetrable technobabble, their words also convey a unique credibility, as Carruth does not have the luxury of visual effects to enhance the look of the film. Instead, the writer-producer-director leans into his roots as a mathematician and software developer, amalgamating the sophistication of his screenplay with the raw, liberating novelty of creative independence, cleverly punctuating the overlapping dialogues in the editing room with suggestive, recurring visions that summon memories of earlier scenes.
But for the more analytically inclined, Carruth stays true to the intellectual premise, revealing that engineers Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan)’s superconductor operates on a feedback loop where the voltage output is more than the input. Their revelation comes with another “side effect,” as time in the box is gleaned to operate independent and separate from our reality’s standard progression of time. In other words, if an object like a watch is placed into this superconductor (renamed “the fail-safe machine”) for one minute, it actually turns out to be 1,300 minutes. The final act of Primer deals with the fallout of the two men’s curiosities and defiance of scientific laws. Yet, for as much of a convoluted puzzle as the plot may initially appear, Carruth maintains a sharply focused eye on personal detail that would carry over into the realization of the incredible Upstream Color (2013) some nine years later.
If recent rumors are true about Carruth quitting the industry after his next film, it seems all the more necessary to revisit his short but sterling body of work to reassess its influence on a host of imitators like Rian Johnson’s Looper (2012) and Coherence (2014). Graciously, WUD Film is providing a couple late-night chances at the Marquee on a rarely screened DCP. —Grant Phipps
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22
Listening to Dorian Electra’s 2019 debut album Flamboyant feels a bit like watching an amusement park carousel. Each track presents a hyperbolically colorful new portrait of masculinity, from the corporate masochist of “Career Boy” to the braggadocious self-proclaimed virtuoso of “Musical Genius.” The characters Electra embodies swirl by slowly to create a whole that’s somehow even campier and more captivating than the sum of its parts. With their sweeping vocal range, clever lyricism, and relentlessly catchy production, Electra’s pushes the performativity inherent in pop music to an extreme, leaving no room for any trace of sentimentality. That’s not to say Electra shies away from earnestness—each of their characters bursts with a sense of desire, confidence, or, well, flamboyance whose sincerity is hard to deny.
Sure they can talk the talk, but Electra’s shows prove that they can just as skillfully walk the walk. Electra takes the stage wearing their signature eyeliner-drawn mustache, typically flanked by two muscular backup dancers clad in body harnesses, delivering performances marked by a distinctive blend of eroticism and humor. The secret is in their airtight choreography. It’s intense, precise and high-energy, and perfectly conveys the physicality of each of the personae Electra inhabits in their work.
Sure, the live show is not quite as flashy a performance as their music may demand or deserve (save that for their music videos, each of which seems more meticulously crafted than the last), but it’s a pleasure to watch on all levels nonetheless. Alongside opener Alice Longyu Gao’s abrasively catchy e-girl bops and aesthetics, and Madison’s own DJ Boyfrrriend, Electra’s February 22 show at the Sett is sure to have something for all the girls, gays, and theys to enjoy. —Sannidhi Shukla