Alain Resnais’ “Wild Grass,” sonic mischief from William Z. Villain and Sinking Suns, and more events of note in Madison this week.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 22
William Z. Villain is both a character, who tells his stories of tragedy and criminality over a hybrid of sinister jazz and Balkan folk, and the genuinely mischievous id of guitarist/vocalist Benjamin Bill. The Madison native, currently dwelling in rural Dane County, has an ever-shifting live lineup for the project, sometimes accompanying himself with looped percussion and sometimes bringing along a full band that fleshes out the playfully spiraling drama of songs like “Tippy Tippy Top (The Inspector’s Song)” or the playfully downtrodden plod of “Paper Trail.” Lately multi-instrumentalist Courtney Jarman of Mori Mente has played a consistent role in WZV’s live incarnation. But whatever the lineup, the project’s live sets center around Benjamin Bill’s octave-hopping vocal antics and his complex, prickly work on an eight-string resonator guitar. On “Uncle Bill Goes Hi-Fi,” for instance, he shifts between tongue-twisting patter (“I’m not a credible guy, but I’ve got some incredibly edible lies”) raspy crooning, and disembodied wails. His banter in between songs is hilarious and unhinged, disarming listeners a bit while reminding them that they’ve entered a very strange dimension—the last time I saw William Z. Villain, in a very good four-piece configuration, he did a whole bit about working as a landscaper and wanting to cut a giant Wu-Tang Clan logo into a golf course.
In addition to originals from his 2017 self-titled album and 2018’s Stonedigger, Benjamin Bill says the set here will incorporate some “old Greek tunes—reinterpretations of deep folk tunes from a hash den culture.” He’s begun working on a new William Z. Villain record, and plans to tour the U.S. this spring. He’s also been hosting a Tuesday night open mic at Bandung’s Nutty Bar. New Orleans band Night Water headlines here ahead of the January release of its debut album, Leave No Trace. Also playing here is Madison’s own Julian Lynch, whose live sets sometimes draw on the gently adventurous psych of his solo albums (including the 2019 release Rat’s Spit) and sometimes delve into improvisations for electronics and guitar. Full disclosure: Both William Z. Villain and Lynch played a benefit event for Tone Madison and Communication in July. —Scott Gordon
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 23
Wrapping up the UW Cinematheque’s look at the films of the incomparable Julia Reichert is a collection of three of her shorter collaborations with fellow documentarian Steve Bognar. First, the Oscar-nominated The Last Truck (2009) focuses on the final days of a General Motors plant in the town of Moraine, Ohio in 2008. Next, 2012’s Sparkle follows venerated dancer Sheri Williams as a late-career injury calls her future into question. The program ends Making Morning Star (2016), a look at the creative team rushing to finish a new opera in a workshop hosted by the Cincinnati Opera.
Keeping in line with Reichert’s most famous features, this collection is preoccupied with work, and the existential relationship people develop with it, with subjects shown grappling with the question of who they might be without their chosen vocation. These stakes are perhaps highest in The Last Truck, which could be seen as a sort of dry run for the collaborators’ more recent American Factory feature for Netflix. While Sparkle and Making Morning Star both focus on the more personal crises of artists, Last Truck deals in larger-scale drama by trying to understand the magnitude of loss GM inflicted upon the 2,000 people who depended upon their jobs at the plant. The film is an intimate portrait of people who have lost not only a way of making ends meet, but a community and a way of life. Seeing the employees’ sense of pride and identification in their work up through the last truck that the plant produced is a sobering reminder of the real human lives behind the all-too-common news stories of mass closures and layoffs. This marriage of an empathetic and humane filmmaking style with a more technical and process-focused directorial vision is Reichert’s greatest strength as a filmmaker, and it carries even shorter works such as these. —Maxwell Courtright
Madison band Sinking Suns recently marked the 10th anniversary of its current lineup, and over the past decade it has created a ferociously satisfying body of work. It’s noise-rock, bleak and menacing as you please, and the band doesn’t try to dress it up as anything else on its two full-lengths so far, 2018’s Bad Vibes and 2016’s Death Songs, or on 2014’s Songs Of Revenge EP. (A collection of earlier singles was titled Bad Luck, Tragedy, And Revenge, so the themes are pretty consistent.) Sinking Suns’ approach does find variety within that sparse framework, though. The two albums incorporate lots of shadowy reverb from the realms of surf-rock and rockabilly, with effects that range from stormy to slow-burning, or somewhere in between, as on Death Songs‘ “The Pit.” Drummer Gabe Johnson and bassist/vocalist Dennis Ponozzo are always keen to mine the friction between different rhythmic feels within a song—for instance, “Thumbsucker,” from Bad Vibes, which begins with tense toms and bass triplets before shifting into an ominous lumbering groove.
Guitarist Scott Udee contributes a great deal of creepy atmosphere and rhythmic queasiness, using bends, vibrato, and barbed phrasing to keep the listener off balance on songs like “Drown In Black,” from Songs Of Revenge. And his dissonant, austere figures on “Distant Drums,” from Bad Vibes, cut nicely against the burly howl of Ponozzo’s vocals. The mix of factors at work here makes Sinking Suns particularly fun as a live bands—the sets have plenty of brute force throughout, but enough versatility to keep things from locking into a predictable pattern. The band has been working on writing and demoing new songs, so you might hear some new material at this show, with fellow Madisonians Brainerd and Our Friends, The Savages. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 24
One of the late works of French New Wave auteur Alain Resnais, Wild Grass (2009) is a full heave of cinematic subversion from one of the most renowned highbrow pranksters. For 100 minutes, Resnais essentially parodies tropes of mystery, romance, and noir genres with colorful aplomb (no doubt vividly enhanced by the 35mm print that will screen here, courtesy of the Chicago Film Society), crafting an inexplicable narrative that seems as much a part of every genre as it is none at all. Adapted from Christian Gailly’s novel, L’Incident (1996), the film harnesses the bizarre humor and tangential threads of its source, amassing them into a tangled web of suburban intrigue and absurd push-pull desperation, perhaps akin to the endeavors of writer-director François Ozon earlier this decade (see: 2012’s In The House).
Wild Grass even opens with a bit of misdirection, as a nameless narrator (Édouard Baer) chronicles a shoe-shopping excursion for middle-aged dentist Marguerite (Sabine Azéma) before her purse is snatched on the way out. Part of the purse’s contents, including Marguerite’s wallet and pilot’s license, are found discarded in a parking garage. Enter Georges Palet (André Dussollier), good Samaritan, who immediately begins to imagine Marguerite’s life and habits in relation to his own history and interest in aviation. In his hypothetical pondering, Georges ends up delivering the wallet to the police rather than returning it to Marguerite in person. Yet, unwilling to leave the resolved situation alone, he obsesses over her to the point where he sees their paths as inseparable. The resultant comedy feels a bit akin to the anxiously awkward wittiness of Albert Brooks, yet Resnais continually delays the eventual rendezvous of Georges and Marguerite so it acts as a kind of tense punchline that’s accompanied by playfully anarchic usage of Alfred Newman’s “20th Century Fox Fanfare.”
Other facets of the film—like its interstitial pans through pastoral imagery of its title, the flagrant use of green screens in vehicles, artifice of set designs, and Christian Hincker’s surrealist/René Magritte-esque poster—reflect Resnais’ affinity for the eye-popping signatures of modernist art. It’s in this amalgamation of elements that Resnais proves he could surprise and innovate in his fifth decade as a filmmaker. Wild Grass captures the spirit of his intense and challenging art house statements like Muriel (1963), but puts a more accessibly whimsical spin on them, resulting in film that feels like an acrobatic daydream amidst the clouds. —Grant Phipps
Louka Patenaude ranks among the most versatile and gifted guitarists to call Madison home, having played in a variety of settings from jazz to rock to country to the reggae band Natty Nation. Patenaude’s playing always favors adaptability over flash, whether he’s performing with any number of Madison-connected jazz staples (including Nick Moran, Paul Hastil, Ben Sidran, and Paul Dietrich) or ripping up a fleet-fingered acoustic solo in an informal set of country covers. But he also deserves a bit more appreciation for his understated work as a songwriter and vocalist, in projects including the charmingly raggedy rock outfit The Optimistic and the multi-songwriter country collaborative The Fingers. Lately he’s been crafting new solo material that combines American folk with a variety of other influences, including classical music and Mediterranean music, in a project simply called Louka. He’s been working on new recordings and workshopping a range of material at a recurring gig at Bandung’s Nutty Bar on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, and will perform here with bassist John Christensen and drummer Josh Pultorak. The one song Patenaude has shared with me from the in-the-works Louka record is titled “Moonrock,” and showcases the melancholy, restrained side of his songwriting, with acoustic guitar leads that are elegant but never overwrought.
This show’s lineup showcases some other subtly eccentric folk standouts from around the Madison area. Things have been a little quiet lately for Faux Fawn, a five-piece band led by Stoughton resident Paul Otteson, though it did release a playful collection of dinosaur-themed songs earlier this year. On the band’s previous releases, including 2014’s Lonesome Loon and 2012’s Robin Red, Otteson’s unusual tenor vocals and economical storytelling strike a balance between mystery and gentle melody. Madison-based singer-songwriter Luke Arvid collaborated with Patenaude in The Fingers and has released his own run of rugged but warm folk-rock albums, the latest being 2017’s Greenmoth. The newest outfit on this bill, Free Dirt, includes members of Blueheels and Little Legend and recently released its debut album, Pink Floyd On Ice. (Full disclosure: Free Dirt member Joe Copeland occasionally helps with Tone Madison‘s event planning.) —Scott Gordon