Boundary-pushing comedy from Eric Andre, experimental sounds from Scott Fields and Maths Balance Volumes, gently warped pop from The Caribbean, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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THURSDAY JULY 26
Calling comedian Eric Andre “unpredictable” doesn’t really begin to do him justice. Perhaps it’s best to let some of his gonzo man-on-the-street antics speak for themselves by relating them plainly. There was the time he showed up at a dog park in Madison Square Park, stripped down to a thong made of peanut butter, laid down, and put his legs in stirrups. There was the time he opened a pop-up ranch-dressing dispensary—selling “LEGALIZE RANCH” T-shirts—and bore witness to attendees chugging the buttermilk-and-mayo potion. There’s the entire sub-genre of happenings involving public transportation, where people, basically trapped, choose to ignore or engage while Andre (with a dog cone around his head) spills Fruit Loops or (while dressed as a centaur) drops two birthday cakes and embarrassedly tries to clean them off people’s pants. Explaining that these elaborate stunts typically yield no more than 40 seconds and are intended as palate cleansers on The Eric Andre Show, an Adult Swim talk-show parody vibrating with anarchy, really doesn’t help, but will be a good indicator on whether you’d be interested in seeing him live.
As a comedian Andre continues on in the tradition of Andy Kaufman, Steve Martin, and even Zach Galifianakis, with a searing willingness to deconstruct and goof on what is expected of performers and their legacies. There’s always some sort of unpredictable element at play in his live shows, whether it’s intentionally parodying bad stand-up or tolerating a drunk interloper storming the stage and seeing how far he can push them. But comparing Andre to Kaufman or Galifianakis feels incomplete; what drives his output (including the new Adult Swim show, Mostly 4 Millennials, which he produces) is communicating that there’s something deeply wrong with the world—and not spelling out for viewers what the point always is or whether those conclusions are tainted in how he’s measuring it.
There’s far more to Andre than all these batshit hijinks described here. He’s spoken both about his passion for Transcendental Meditation and his skepticism over whether his training at Berklee College of Music has influenced his approach to comedy. Whatever. Weird as it is, what he’s doing is important and worth watching, if only for the perverse respite of getting your brain tied in knots and set on fire. —David Wolinsky
La Ciénaga (The Swamp) is a meandering Argentinian film that painstakingly documents a summer of decadent squalor in the life of a middle-class family that has given up on its future. The opening scene shows the parents splayed out in swimming clothes, as they chill out by a filthy pool filled with leaves and milky water. They drink wine that looks as red and sweet as juice, and mark time dragging their chairs along the ground to follow the shade. The camera swoons along with their bored stumbling. When Mecha (Graciela Borges), the matriarch of the family, gets up to return some wine glasses to the kitchen, she slips and cuts herself on the glass shards. “Right above my cleavage, what a disaster,” she quips, after she is rushed to the hospital by her children (the other adults can’t be bothered). She doesn’t lift a finger after that, and her children fear she, like her own mother before her, will take to bed and never return.
Many scenes that follow swing similarly close to the edge of disaster, and the teenagers barely—and complacently—avoid life-altering trauma. Children whip machetes at a pond to catch fish, most likely to emerge from the hunt with fewer fingers. Later, the possibility or history of incest is heavily implied when twentysomething eldest brother Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) sticks his leg into the shower of his teenage sister, where she’s cleaning off from their mud wrestling. These and so many other moments often linger on children experimenting, with nearly catastrophic results, in a world devoid of active role models.
The movie is basically plotless, with a few key moments were tension is finally released. Jose is beaten after hitting on the young maid of the family at a carnival, Mecha gives up on her deadbeat husband, and school supplies that are mentioned over and over again are finally bought. Finally, there is a sickening accident that stems directly from lack of attention. To weave all of this together, the audience has to pay far more attention to these people’s lives than they do. In an interview about another of director Lucrecia Martel movies, 2009’s The Headless Woman, she explains, “If you want movies to give you everything, this movie fails. You have to be there. I need you. I don’t want to show you. I want to really share something. It’s not easy. When you have a conversation, and you really want to understand the other person, it takes time and effort.” Like her later movies, The Swamp, Martel’s directorial debut, is the kind of movie that rewards patience and an open mind. Its complex and ambiguous paralleling of class and race bias, and social commentary on a difficult portion of Argentine economic history, deserve the scrutiny Martel demands. —Reid Kurkerewicz
New Zealand-born and Portland, Oregon-based musician Ruban Nielson continues has led his band Unknown Mortal Orchestra through ever-rotating combinations of pop, R&B and guitar-centric rock and roll. While 2016’s Multi-Love was a pop-dance record, and UMO’s self-titled 2011 debut album and 2013’s II efforts were straight up neo-psychedelic rock, this year’s Sex & Food splits the difference between these disparate influences. Whether it does so successfully can change from song to song. Lead single “Hunnybee,” is the best song UMO has written in years, with precise violin-esque guitar sliding, immaculate production and a crisp chorus that sticks in your head for days (in a good way), and manages to juggle the dancy expectations of the band’s newer fans while throwing a bone to their old ’60s-rock crowd.
On the other side of the album’s diverse spectrum of sounds, another single, “American Guilt,” is like a discarded Jack White B-side, with a vague political theme about the U.S. coming to terms with the trauma it has caused, including in Vietnam, where the song was recorded. The chorus, “Here comes the American guilt,” stated with the aplomb of a scientist in a monster movie, comes off as corny when paired with the song’s hyper-distorted and rather boring blues riffs. Nielson said in a recent KEXP interview that he wanted Sex & Food to sound fractured, like our political landscape (get it?!) which is less a sufficient commentary and more of a simple recapitulation of a problem anyone who reads the news (even fake news) already understands pretty well.
Fortunately, those who are disappointed by UMO’s genre-hopping can always look forward to the live shows, where the songs dynamically evolve into new, fuzzier versions, opening up chunks of the familiar hits for guitar shredding interludes or transforming something heavy like “American Guilt” with (still corny, but prettier) acoustic guitar. Usually, the live energy of Nielson’s command of electric guitar becomes the focus, as he displays his immense technical talent with stunning but not-too-gratuitous solos and jamming. Kevin Krauter, a songwriter with a similarly diverse range of influences, opens this show with folksy synth tunes that filter Americana sounds through his electronics. —Reid Kurkerewicz
FRIDAY JULY 27
Baseball connoisseur and film expert Dave Filipi (who received his masters degree in film theory from UW-Madison) brings his two loves together in this showcase of vintage baseball film. Filipi, now director of film and video at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, will visit Cinematheque in person to present a guided tour of the clips he’s selected from the University of California Los Angeles news archive, discussing various caught-on-film touchstones in the game that used to help bind America together.
While the clips themselves weren’t available for previewing ahead of this screening, some of the moments you’ll see in this collection notorious in their own right. For example, the retirement press conference of the heavily accoladed, youngest-ever hall of fame pitcher Sandy Koufax—announcing that he won’t play a game that requires painkillers—show us the through lines of health problems the sport still struggles with today. Over the two hours of Filipi’s presentation, attendees will also see Babe Ruth’s first and last days on the big league field (which could be an interesting before-and-after time lapse of the effects of celebrity and alcoholism), comedians Buster Keaton and Jack Benny making a mockery of the American pastime in an early version of a pros and celebs match, and a possibly questionable cultural exchange between Yankee showgirls and Japanese women. —Reid Kurkerewicz
In his decades of work, Scott Fields has enriched the tradition of avant-garde jazz with his unlikely collaborative efforts and unconventional compositional methods. It was in Chicago’s Hyde Park that Fields was first exposed to avant-garde music in the ’70s and where he began to learn multiple instruments (though he’s chiefly known as a guitarist), and in Madison where he began to play and perform again in 1989 after an extended break from music. Now based in Cologne, Germany, the 64-year-old composer visits his former home for a solo show.
In the span of his career post-hiatus, Fields has released more than 30 records, with collaborators ranging from therobo player David Rath to Tortoise’s Jeff Parker, and in settings ranging from quartets to large ensembles. But his 2015 album Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame is Fields’ only real solo-guitar effort—just himself and his acoustic, steel-string flat top guitar. Much of the unease and unsteadiness that verges into near-cacophony on his other projects is still present here, but inevitably more stripped-down. Across nine tracks, divided into two suites, Fields delicately arranges music based around Charles Bukowski’s collection of poems, The Pleasures Of The Damned (although album draws its title from a different Bukowski collection). The gem of the record is “Woman On The Street,” a track steeped in forlorn sadness. Whereas Fields’ disjointed style feels like a choice on the album’s other songs, here it feels inevitable. — Henry Solo
SATURDAY JULY 28
Eli Lynch never sounds firmly tethered to any one vocal, production, or songwriting approach, or at least he always likes to make room for a bit of sonic and emotional chaos. Performing as Smiley Gatmouth, Lynch takes the dexterous wordplay he learned as a young slam poet and channels it into a mix of taut rapping and slightly unhinged, free-form singing, with a voice that leaps playfully between octaves and personas. On “Home (Forreal),” the second track of his 2016 album Carousel, Lynch paints a surreal scene of gentrification in his native Denver, doubling his own raps in a resiny baritone and a cracking high register, a wistful vocal approach that perfectly suits the lyrics’ mix of nostalgia and anxiety: “It’s raining ashes, now I wonder what they used to be.”
Lynch has returned to Denver since graduating from UW-Madison’s First Wave program, and he’s been working for a youth-advocacy nonprofit, making new music, and published a new poetry collection this summer, The Breaking Of Clay: Excerpts From The Making Of Clay. A couple of recent tracks released on YouTube, “Triflin'” and “Won’t Take Much,” find Lynch accompanying himself on ukulele and taking a more melodic vocal approach, albeit with a dash of cryptic verbiage (“You kiss like Icarus”?). For this Terrace show, he’s planning to play a mix of solo-ukulele songs and more beat-driven material. This show will also promote The JVN Project and its annual JVN Day Hip-Hop Festival, a series of performance and workshops that will take place Sept. 6 through 9 in honor of John Vietnam Nguyễn, Lynch’s friend and fellow First Waver, who drowned in 2012 at age 19. Three other artists with connections to the First Wave program—rapper/singer Jonnychang, MC-turned-singer-songwriter Son! (playing a DJ set here), and poet/rapper Zhalarina—will share the bill. —Scott Gordon
Madison band Cthonian Lich check off nearly all the boxes of traditionalist doom: knowingly spooky lyrics and amusingly evil delivery (courtesy of former Serpent Lung drummer Graham Connors), a guitar tone that sounds like it’s generated from the illicit lovechild of your local dust storm and a Tyrannosaur’s snore, and thudding, swinging drums. The primitivism of their approach, though, is novel and enjoyable: this is deliberately over-the-top metal reduced to bare bones, which perversely allows the good-time aspects of their music to shine through. Subtlety is completely beside the point here, and that’s the correct decision: a song like “Dire Fate” (the only demo available on their Bandcamp) needs the drums to emphasize every riff the guitar plays to make it as pounding and hammered-out as possible. If you’re going to get this overt with your demonic role-playing, you might as well go all the way with it, and Cthonian Lich have learned that lesson well.
They appear here with Milwaukee’s Lost Tribes Of The Moon, who recently hired a new singer and accordingly shifted from technically complex, King Diamond-informed power metal to a somewhat less theatrical sound, and local black-metal institution Tubal Cain. Tubal Cain’s style is far closer to the stylistic forerunners and earliest examples of black metal (particularly Venom and Bathory) than the somewhat later Norwegian sound that ended up defining the genre for most, and that approach, along with their relentless riffage, has always made them stand out. —Mike Noto
Maths Balance Volumes, Hideous Replica, Research Products Corporation, Terran. Good Style Shop, 7:30 p.m.
The Madison/Mankato, Minnesota duo of Maths Balance Volumes has been weaving together haunting and tape-hiss-edged cassette collages since the mid-2000s, becoming a vital part of a healthy but obscure Midwestern experimental music community. Clay Kolbinger and Jameson Sweiger manipulate bits of found sound, sampled music, and field recordings into pieces that prod the listener’s consciousness from an oblique angle, sometimes developing a harmonic through-line but just as often delving deep into layers of abstract texture, as if exposing a nether dimension of sound that surrounds us every day. The track “For Some Hour,” from 2017’s Absence, threads a mournful vocal through woozily twisting currents of strings and scuffling low end. In addition to their work together as Maths Balance Volumes, Kolbinger has been focusing on his solo projects, one-person punk outlet Private Anarchy and the sparse, tape-manipulating Termite Acropolis, and Sweiger has been working on his own minimalist experimental electronic project, Final Seed.
MBV share the bill here with three Wisconsin acts working other abstract corners of sound. Tony Endless, a longtime local experimental musician whose projects have included the spaced-out drone project Drunjus and the improvisational Second Family Band, performs here as Research Products Corporation, which will be largely focused on tape loops. Hideous Replica is an abrasive noise outfit from Milwaukee, and Terran is the wide-ranging synth and guitar-focused solo project from Terrance Barrett of Madison psych-rock band Carbon Bangle. —Scott Gordon
Grimes Fest is one of Madison’s least-heralded yet most distinctive “fests,” offering a reprieve from sweaty outdoor settings with a potluck-style culinary approach and booker Dan Grimes’ focus on regional bands that are either heavy and/or sonically skewed. This year’s eight-artist lineup ranges from the atmospheric post-rock of DeKalb, Illinois six-piece Things Falling Apart to the frenetic post-punk of Madison’s Transformer Lootbag.
Things Falling Apart’s latest album, this year’s Hex Debts, is a bit gentler and more approachable than their 2016 effort Blind Hammer, I Miss You Like Nails. Formed out of tracks that didn’t make the cut of the latter, Hex Debts favors shorter pieces and places the band’s guitars in more subtle, supporting roles. On tracks like “Telta Aeta,” there’s more space for droning synth figures and violin and banjo segments to take center-stage at times. Despite the relative brevity of Hex Debts, it feels just as full as blind hammer, in that it offers an even greater range of musicality in less space. However, the title track features brooding, distorted, and clashing guitar parts and thumping percussion, and closes the album in a fashion that’s a bit more in line with the band’s past, offering a thrilling coda to what is overall a relatively soothing album.
Transformer Lootbag have only ever released one album, a self-titled effort from 2003, but have firmly established themselves as one of the most brilliantly fried bands to ever emerge from Madison. The album opens with “Big Top Icon Contender,” a track that’s gleefully tuneful when it’s not veering into stabs of dissonance. It concludes with the thrashing, disjointed “Crowning The Ant King.” In between these two tracks, the trio’s performances grow more chaotic, the vocals (each member sings and shouts) more terse and less melodic, the guitars more distorted, and the percussion more boisterous. “Observation Crew,” the album’s fourth song, is the one that bridges these two extremes and is also the record’s high point. Ricky Riemer’s guitar cycles in hectic, but controlled phrases, Matt Abplanalp’s drums establish a tumbling groove, and the group’s vocals carry a note of barely suppressed panic. —Henry Solo
SUNDAY JULY 29
If you go out to see live jazz in Madison with any regularity, you’ll likely see a whole lot of Tony Barba, who plays saxophone and/or bass clarinet with a slew of local artists including Golpe Tierra, Immigré, Mama Digdown’s Brass Band, Barbacoa, and Youngblood Brass Band. He’s also recorded or played live with artists including Bon Iver, The Mountain Goats, and Makaya McCraven. It is safe to say that Barba is a versatile collaborator, but he deserves just as much attention for the improvisational solo work he’s been pursuing over the past few years with sax and a sparse chain of effects and loop pedals.
On the 2016 album Winter’s Arms, Barba is in good company with other contemporary reeds-plus-electronics explorers like Lea Bertucci and Jonah Parzen-Johnson, crafting meditative pieces that have more affinity with ambient music than with jazz, but still pulse with clear melodic themes and delicate harmonic shading. When he’s playing live in this mode, Barba still manages to have the presence of a live jazz improviser, balancing careful electronic manipulation with the unaffected warmth of, well, a sax in a small room.
At this afternoon performance, Barba will offer a look at what’s to come for his solo work. He has a new setup, swapping out his effects pedals for Ableton Live software and MIDI controllers, and recently received a Greater Madison Jazz Consortium grant to support the expansion of his solo work. He is planning a new solo album for release sometime in 2019. This show is part of a locally focused series curated by Madison saxophonist/composer Anders Svanoe; admission is a $5 suggested donation, and there will be free samosas. —Scott Gordon
MONDAY JULY 30
Melvins first became nationally infamous in Nirvana’s wake, but they’d been hometown heroes in Washington since the mid-’80s, and therefore massively influential on a scene that would help change the nature of American independent music. This was a strange period of music history, when a band could jump from a label called “Boner Records,” to a label called “Atlantic Records” in the space of a single year, which the Melvins in 1993 did after Kurt Cobain cited them as an influence and as friends. Though they weren’t sustainably commercial enough for an extended stay on a major label, the band’s been churning out solid music for three decades, and has released an EP or album nearly every year.
While Melvins are always playing some form of rock, their sound ranges from experimental noise to catchy grunge to sludge metal and back again. There is literally no discography anything like theirs, partially because most bands give up at some point. On 2018’s Pinkus Abortion Technician, the band takes a characteristic risk by shuffling Butthole Surfers bassist Jeff Pinkus back into the group, using two bass players at a time. (Pinkus has joined Melvins on previous records, but here he’s co-written four of this album’s songs.) The unconventional instrumentation is put to aggressive effect on the single “Don’t Move To Florida,” which starts as a classic hard rock song, turns into an experimental sludgy spoken-word piece, and ends with a blues-punk breakdown. The rest of the tracks are focused iterations of hard rock with particularly busy bass lines, like the heavy cover of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” by The Beatles, which is exposed as the creepy plea for physical affection that it always was (with wild bass riffing thrown in). As a formal meditation on low-pitch melodies, the album stumbles when the basses are just used like deep guitars, but on tracks like the relatively reserved “Flamboyant Duck,” when thoughtfully grounded with looping banjo hooks, it makes for enjoyable grooves. Unfortunately, if you’re prejudiced against bass solos, I can’t help you with this one.
The original garage-rock edge-lord Jon Spencer, of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Pussy Galore, and Boss Hog opens. His recent single “Do The Trash Can,” is impressively both screeching and infectious. —Reid Kurkerewicz
For Washington, DC band The Caribbean, playing and writing “experimental pop” involves committing to something like a straightforward framework, anchored in Michael Kentoff’s conversational, close-sounding vocal melodies and swaying guitar chords. What counts is that every decision made within and around that framework is deliberate. On “I Haven’t Given Up Hoping,” from 2014’s Moon Sickness, Kentoff sings his way around playfully ping-ponging hand claps, while a synth line ever so gently introduces a bit of harmonic tension to the song. Right before the band kicks into the bridge, there’s a sound that might be a weird fricative from a sax, or the processed sound of a cable being plugged in somewhere, but it lasts all of two seconds and only recurs once, during the instrumental passage that closes out the song.
That’s one instance of how The Caribbean plays the constraints of pop against the instinct to explore a variety of textures and sounds. The approach must take a great deal of restraint and very granular arranging, and the results are often simultaneously lush and minimalistic. The band’s most recent single, “Vitamin Ship,” starts with bright electric guitars that hint at an up-tempo number, but Matt Byars’ rolling snare drum and Dave Jones’ slow-building atmospheric synth and guitar lines usher it right into a realm of wistful psych. The Caribbean is planning another single this fall, and is working on a new full-length for release in early 2019. —Scott Gordon
TUESDAY JULY 31
With stately pop structures and lead singer Matt Berninger’s charismatic baritone, The National seems almost genetically engineered to prosper—or inspire awe—in a live setting. In seven albums since 2001’s self-titled debut, the band has been building a songbook positively stacked with swooning compositions like “Squalor Victoria” (a cavernous and heartfelt elegy from 2007’s Boxer) and “Mr. November” (a more upbeat, perhaps sarcastic scorcher from 2005’s Alligator about “how uncomfortable it is to run for president”). The band is currently on tour supporting 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, which is notable for staking out slightly new terrain: melodies that morph into itchy electronic explorations. Finding out how this will play out live and lock in with the band’s other solidly established soundscapes is one of the major appeals of this show.
Equal excitement is merited for opener Lucy Dacus. A Virginia-born singer-songwriter whose first wide exposure came with tunes steeped in wry, slacker surveys of the modern emotional landscape, Dacus deepens her material on this year’s sophomore full-length, Historian. The wistful melancholy of the previous record’s minor breakthrough “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” evolved into the tough-minded memoir of “Nonbeliever” and the heartbreak survival epic “Night Shift.” Without sacrificing her sharp sensibility, Dacus opts for lush, complex arrangements that serve as the perfect restlessly fluffed pillow for her rich vocals. It should be an ideal flow from support to headliner. —Daniel Seeger