The powerful improvisation of Kuzu, “Bone Tomahawk,” 90’sdreamboy, and more events of note in Madison this week.
Photo by Julia Dratel.
THURSDAY, MARCH 12
Madison trio 90’sdreamboy plays with a bit of throwback kitsch from its namesake decade, in a way that smartly enriches its tough but joyous take on punk-rock and pop. Guitarist Danielle Jordan, bassist Ash Quinn, and drummer Vivian Lin (who all share vocal duties) write openly, brashly queer songs and pair the music with graphic design worthy of The Max, repurposing the sugarcoated teen-heartthrob masculinity of ’90s pop culture to create something at once playful and defiant. The band’s debut EP, the recently released I <3 90’sdreamboy, is largely a brighter affair than last year’s tense post-punk single “Contemplation Disorder,” which earned notice in Tone Madison‘s 2019 year-end music coverage. The EP starts off with the shout-along punk of “Macaulay Sulkin’.” The song captures both the anticipation and fear of pursuing a new crush, all with a charmingly low-budget edge: “I wanna make you pancakes / I wanna take you on a date / Take you out to Willalby’s and let you get the check.”
Two of these songs draw their titles and lyrical themes from ’90s movies that center around lesbian romances. On “But I’m A Cheerleader,” Jordan’s brightly fuzzed-out guitar and Lin’s tension-building fills power a chorus that celebrates the protagonists’ decision to ultimately accept their sexuality. And by calling back to a satire about conversion therapy—released at a time when fewer people seemed to understand just how sinister conversion therapy is—the band reminds us that it’s still a problem around the world today. On the more ominous and grimy “Bound,” Quinn and Jordan duet as Violet and Corky, protagonists of the Wachowskis’ 1996 heist thriller, trading off brief but obviously charged lines like “I need your help / I’ll fix your pipes” and “I been to prison / That’s hot / I got tattoos / My god.”
The verses of “Come 2 Me” show what 90’sdreamboy can do with more quiet and restrained passages, which lead into outbursts of raw yearning. This track puts it all out in the open, pairing the tense clean guitars of the verses with full-on achingly horny lines like “I wanna take you home and fuck you like a fucking queen.” As straightforward as it is on the surface, the song also captures the dark and tormented side of desire, just as much as “But I’m A Cheerleader” captures warmth and release. Across I <3 90’sdreamboy, the band incorporates a variety of ideas from punk, pop, and throwback indie-rock, never getting pigeonholed into one approach. It’s both refreshing and immediately familiar, which might be why 90’sdreamboy is such a fun live band. The actual release show for the EP was on February 29 at Mickey’s, but apparently the place was so packed that night that people were getting turned away. Luckily, 90’sdreamboy and queer-punk do Gender Confetti will play this Thursday at Bos Meadery to open up a tour-kickoff show for fellow Madisonians Kat And The Hurricane, who recently released a new EP, Libra. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY, MARCH 14
Editor’s note: UW Cinematheque has canceled screenings through April 12, including this one.
Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson star in 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, a bare-bones horror-Western that has no qualms about depictions of brutality. Matthew Fox, David Arquette, and Lili Simmons round out a strong cast and anchor a bleak tale that follows an intrepid band of would-be rescuers in the 1890s after two community members are abducted by cave-dwelling cannibals. Fortunately, the film’s dedication to accuracy and its clear presence of mind allow it to take the “cannibalistic native” issue from a potentially gross trope to effective through-line, balancing it with a strong role for Zahn McClarnon, who imbues his role as “The Professor” with the kind of hard-earned feeling that’s turned him into one of today’s strongest character actors.
Tense and unnerving from start to finish, S. Craig Zahler’s film (screening here to kick off a short UW Cinematheque series on the director’s work) operates with precision. Detractors have called out the film’s 132-minute run time but most, if not all, of those seconds are well spent on critical details that elevate the material. Whether it’s establishing the endless, vast expanse of its setting or cutting to and away from where the action takes place to build tension, there’s a viable purpose. Bone Tomahawk also gets a strong emotional assist from its original score, which is comprised of small, string-led sections composed by Zahler and Wisconsin-based Jeff Herriott (of Bell Monks).
Spending most of the film’s opening stretch in psychological thriller mode, Zahler stokes uncertainty by assigning each member of the rescue party various traits and motives that run counter to the others’. On their journey, small actions and events lead to a growing unease among the group, culminating with a series of betrayals and acknowledgments, repeatedly shifting the focal point away from the end goal and towards what proves to be a life-threatening incompatibility. Everything changes when two of them are captured.
In Bone Tomahawk‘s most memorable scene (and what follows is less of a spoiler than something that inevitably comes up in most discussions about the film), Russell’s Sheriff Hunt forces himself to watch the grisly end result of what happens to the cannibals’ captives and can only promise revenge from his makeshift prison as his young deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) is stripped, scalped, then impaled with a spear driven through his head-skin and through the back of his mouth, then suspended upside down only to be cleaved, naked, down the center. Bone Tomahawk pays off the previously unknowable totality of its setup in that moment and the stakes get raised to drastic heights—what was a recovery mission becomes an all-out fight for survival.
While that moment of unthinkable violence, which is given a remarkably steady treatment to underscore its situational normalcy, is Bone Tomahawk’s defining moment, it would be a mistake to focus only on that aspect of the film’s legacy. Zahler imbues every fleeting moment of his characters’ thoughtlessness with genuine thought, allowing minute details to shape viewers expectations before upending them with subtle twists. He brings impressive craftsmanship to material that could have played as pure schlock in less adept hands.
Bloody, barbaric, and blackly funny in bursts, Bone Tomahawk has earned its reputation as a pulpy midnight Western classic. Impressively, Bone Tomahawk wound up earning several nominations on the awards circuit in the 2015-16 season, ultimately earning wins for Zahler at the Sitges Film Festival and Russell at the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards. Worth a watch any time of day, Bone Tomahawk is a memorably twisted journey into man’s barbarism and a strong reminder about the tenuous nature of personal conviction. Also, for those who enjoy his performance as the lovably chatty Chicory, Jenkins will be visiting Madison on April 5 for a Wisconsin Film Festival screening of his new movie The Last Shift. —Steven Spoerl
A trio of master improvisors from three distinct disciplines, Kuzu is the relatively new collaborative group of Dave Rempis, Tyler Damon, guitarist Tashi Dorji. Saxophonist Rempis is a long-time member of the Chicago free-jazz scene, most noticeably as a member of the Vandermark Five. Damon comes from the Bloomington, Indiana scene of underground noise-rock, fine-tuning his drumming in various improvisational combos over the last decade. Dorji’s idiosyncratic guitar style is indebted to Derek Bailey and flamenco, but he’s managed to maintain an entirely personal, unique style on both acoustic and electric. Damon and Dorji have been playing together as a duo since 2015, and their live and recorded work is some of the most exciting free music of the last few years; Damon’s manic intensity and Dorji’s splintered phrasing resulting in a constantly mutating full-force barrage. Their first meeting with Rempis is recorded on the 2018 album Hiljaisuus, which maintains a fierce sheet-of-sound intensity throughout while allowing each musician space.
There’s always a feeling in improvised music that everything could fall apart at any moment, but in Kuzu it’s obvious that these three musicians are not only masterful players but also finely attuned listeners, picking up on where the others are going as they sputter and skitter in and out of unison. For musicians with disparate backgrounds this can be even more difficult, but Kuzu has shown it has a restless, organic energy all its own. —Ian Adcock
While Hex House and Conan Neutron And The Secret Friends will undoubtedly make the trip out to Mickey’s Tavern this Saturday worthwhile, it’d be difficult to overlook the draw of Oshkosh/Madison band Bron Sage’s re-emergence. A mainstay of the Fox Valley circuit from about 2012 to 2015, the band made a sizable impression before taking a long break. Last month, the band returned with a show in Oshkosh, revamped. Gone were the horns, once a distinct signifier of the band, and suddenly present was a newly galvanized emphasis on teeth-gnashing, off-kilter heaviness.
Members of Bron Sage took up various projects during the band’s four-year hiatus, including the likes of Madison-based bands Twelves, Black Cat, and Three Hours. Over that time, it seems as though those projects have ingrained an even deeper affinity for abstract ideas and structures. Bron Sage always had a math-y bent but it’s been escalated in their current iteration, which retains four of the group’s original members. Adding to the impact of that decision is the pared down running time of individual songs, which see the band opting to maximize a curious mode of aggression.
Emphasizing Bron Sage’s slight but significant stylistic shift is an entirely new set that sees the band discarding their past work in favor of some newfound momentum. During their hiatus, the band would convene for “experiment sessions” and comb through those sessions to shape their new songs and tweak their overall sound. Exacting and effectively tense, the decisions the band have made in their time away have brought them to another level. To see and hear what that level looks like, make it to the show on time. Bron Sage opens a night that’s shaping up to be more than a little memorable. —Steven Spoerl
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 18
Trumpeter Jaimie Branch and a varied cast of collaborators from across Chicago and New York’s jazz scenes have laid out an explosive, cosmically bold vision across Branch’s two albums as a bandleader, 2017’s Fly Or Die and 2019’s Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise. (Fly Or Die is also the name of the band that tours behind this material.) The first captured a fluid marriage of improvisation and strong composed themes, shifting through bubbly but thorny grooves on “Theme 001” and delicately layering Branch’s trumpet with cornet (from Ben LaMar Gay and Josh Berman) and spacious, psychedelic production twists on “Leaves Of Glass.” Across the album, Branch showcases her ability to combine sharp melodies with a range of brash and otherworldly trumpet sounds, always wielding the instrument in a dogged effort to push through to new territory.
But as fresh and unconstrained as Fly Or Die felt, its follow-up transforms the project into a whole different beast. Branch contributes spoken and sung vocals, synths, and percussion in addition to trumpet on Bird Dogs Of Paradise, making for an approach that’s more direct and confrontational but also pushes the music to even more stirring extremes. “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2” builds up a shambling blues under Branch’s furious rants about the moral rot at our country’s heart: “We got a bunch of wide-eyed racists, and they think they run this shit.” The song gradually morphs into an urgent, mariachi-tinged story about immigrants trying to make it into the country and survive in a hostile climate. Cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor prove just as ambitious and flexible as Branch herself, whether on the playful grooves of “Simple Silver Surfer” or the more abstract opening passage of “Twenty-Three N Me, Jupiter Redux.” (Taylor and Ajemian also played on the first Fly Or Die, but with Tomeka Reid on cello.)
Branch’s most memorable turn as a vocalist here is on the closing track “Love Song,” or, as she croons and bellows time and again, “a love song for assholes and clowns.” It’s funny but sincerely, cathartically, justifiably mean, the musical equivalent of throwing a drink in someone’s face. Between that refrain, Branch lays down alternately lyrical and fiery trumpet leads, as her bandmates nudge the piece toward joyous chaos. There’s so much deeply informed musicianship here, but all the same, Branch and her band refuse to let traditional boundaries or manners hem them in. This Café Coda show will be Fly Or Die’s first visit to Madison. —Scott Gordon
The long-awaited Madison premiere of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire has now arrived at AMC, seemingly timed as festival season begins to heat up. To call this film a “masterpiece” feels somehow both accurate (though the Oscars overlooked it) and insufficient. The label implies it is an ultimate directorial statement, and that writer-director Sciamma won’t be telling intensely humane and beautiful stories about the hopes and desires of women for years to come, as she previously did with Tomboy and Girlhood (Wisconsin Film Festival selections in 2012 and 2015, respectively).
Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is quite literally a character study and a revisionary statement on the artist and their muse with a nearly all-female cast. Set on the French peninsula of Quiberon in the late 18th century, and told largely in subjective flashback, Sciamma’s film begins rather cryptically from the point of view of young painter Marianne (Noémie Merlant, who could pass for Emma Watson’s sister) arriving at the shorefront home of an aristocratic family. There she meets Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), who has been exiled from a convent, and is being forced into an arranged marriage to an unseen man from Milan. Marianne’s job is to accompany Héloïse on contemplative walks and paint her likeness in total secrecy, as Héloïse objects to the marriage and has refused any action that will facilitate it, including posing for a portrait.
It’s the perfect scenario for establishing the necessity of intense observation for Marianne to complete her task, and this naturally arouses Héloïse’s curiosity. If the latter part of the film focuses on uninhibited lust and the inevitability of dwindling time together in the vein of something like Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), the first act is rather defined by elongated moments of stark, erotic quiet, as the two actresses Merlant and Haenel linger on the pregnant subtext of each spoken word, lending them a heightened romantic quality. For instance, in a flirtatious reply to Marianne’s assertion of her personal independence, Héloïse comes to acknowledge her own while attending a Mass service alone—and yet, Héloïse’s first thought is missing Marianne’s perceptive gaze.
Positioning the plot as flashback bookended by the present tense deepens the film’s parallel’s with Almodóvar’s Pain And Glory (2019) where a more unassuming artist (Eduardo) and subject (Salvador) become the spotlight of its final act. Each film lovingly emphasizes the significant bonds inherent within artist and muse, particularly in a queer context, exhibiting a tenderness that would have been seen as taboo in their respective eras, and even relatively recently in the medium of cinema. There’s a deeper, prevailing sense of the melancholic and ineffable in Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, though. Marianne’s visions of love unknown and unfulfilled manifest in ghostly visages and a stunning scene where a haunting chorus of voices articulate a feeling that perhaps no words or portraits can, searing Héloïse’s grace into the everlasting —Grant Phipps
3/13: Shellac, Loki’s Folly. BarleyPop Live, 7:30 p.m. (sold out) (Read more about this in our rundown of six great Shellac songs.)
3/13: CANCELED: Murder By Death, Amigo The Devil. Majestic, 8 p.m. (sold out)
3/14: CANCELED: Forest Management, Noxroy, Woodman/Earhart. Communication, 7:30 p.m. (Read more about this in our story on Forest Management and Noxroy’s split cassette.)
3/15: CANCELED: Vivre Sa Vie. Chazen Museum of Art, 2 p.m. (free)