The ethereal collaboration of Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore, a varied Wisconsin Book Festival, and more events of note in Madison this week.
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THURSDAY OCTOBER 17
The Wisconsin Book Festival is the kind of literary gathering that’s usually more exciting when there isn’t any one particular celebrity author towering over it. Obviously the dozens of authors visiting the festival include folks who’ve sold a respectable number of books (also Ben Folds is involved?), but the strength of the festival is less about name recognition than about variety. Poetry is an especially lively part of the lineup this year, including a joint reading from UW-Madison creative-writing alums Tiana Clark and Rebecca Hazelton (Oct. 19, Central Library Bubbler space), a reading from Madison’s own Oscar Mireles and several other contributors to the collection Undocumented: Great Lakes Poets Laureate On Social Justice (Oct. 20, Bubbler), and an opening-night event with Kevin Coval, Shira Erlichman, and Angel Nafis (Oct. 17, A Room of One’s Own). The broad representation of fiction includes some love for genre fiction, with appearances by several contributors to Akashic Books’ Milwaukee Noir collection (Oct. 17, Bubbler) and horror writer Benjamin Percy sharing his new short-story collection Suicide Woods (Oct. 19, Room of One’s Own).
The Book Festival has also consistently had a strong science element in recent years, thanks to partnerships with the Wisconsin Science Festival and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. UW transplant surgeon Benjamin Mezrich will be sharing his new book When Death Becomes Life: Notes from A Transplant Surgeon, which examines his work through a mix of first-person reflection and historical context (Oct. 17, Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery). Maya Dusenbery delves into the systemic sexism of the medical world in her book Doing Harm, using both big-picture data and specific cases of botched treatment to explain the toll. (Oct. 17, Central Library, Third Floor). In fact, the intersection of healthcare and politics is particularly strong at this year’s festival: Investigative journalist Ben Westhoff will read from his book Fentanyl Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating The Deadliest Wave Of The Opioid Epidemic (Oct. 18, Central Library, Third Floor), and socialist healthcare crusader Timothy Faust will visit behind Health Justice Now: Single Payer And What Comes Next (Oct. 19, Room of One’s Own). Be sure to browse the full lineup. —Scott Gordon
Jay Som, once a project in which multi-instrumentalist/vocalist/producer Melina Duterte recorded everything herself, has grown into a warm, full-sounding band. While this has expanded the palette of her work a bit, Duterte’s music has always felt communal and conversational, even at its most isolated and intimate moments. Jay Som’s second proper album, Anak Ko, is a subtle but distinct evolution of Duterte’s approach to savvy dream pop.
As usual, Duterte has made a refreshingly modern album that builds on the rich palette of 80’s and 90’s guitar pop. From the sweet jangle of “Superbike” to the wave of distortion marking the climax of “Peace Out.” Duterte shows a keen understanding of the components that make classic dream pop and shoegaze records great, channeling them into accessible and emotionally resonant arrangements. While it’s a thoughtfully layered album, Anak Ko is never stuffy or studious. Rather, Duterte’s synthesis is a reminder of how many of us (and especially musicians) often process our own emotions through previous artistic experiences. The musical language of Jay Som is drawn from decades of emotive and beautiful albums, and just as novelists draw on the inventions of wordsmiths before them, Duterte has expertly crafted nine songs. —Maxwell Courtright
FRIDAY OCTOBER 18
On the new album Awake, Milwaukee-based trumpeter Jamie Breiwick reinterprets the work of one of the jazz trumpet’s great innovators, Don Cherry. Breiwick, bassist Tim Ipsen, and drummer Devin Drobka tackle selections that span from the restrained, conversational “Art Deco” to the expansive funk and fusion of “Mahakali.” At the same time, the three musicians on Awake challenge themselves to reckon with all that variety while keeping things pared down and concise. For instance, the version of “Mahakali” here doesn’t include the lush layers of sitar and electric guitar found on Cherry’s 1976 recording of the song. Instead, the trio spends three and a half minutes digging into the versatility of unadorned acoustic instruments, tugging the rhythm of the piece into territory both swinging and choppy. The album’s eight tracks include two alternate takes (of “Art Deco” and “Brown Rice”), suggesting that Breiwick, Ipsen, and Drobka are more interested in exploring what’s at the core of Cherry’s compositions than in overtly emulating his far-flung versatility as an arranger.
“Awake Nu” is certainly one of the high points here: The trio digs into the song’s tottering melodies with stop-start playfulness, flitting between different tempos and feels. Cherry’s version, on the 1969 album Where Is Brooklyn?, featured saxophonist Pharoah Sanders darting alongside the trumpet in a wonderfully chaotic exchange. On Awake, Breiwick has a little more space to work with, and rather than rushing to fill it, he patiently works his way through gently melodic passages and giddy ripples. Ipsen’s bass playing throughout the track finds subtle ways to push up against Breiwick’s playing, and Drobka’s drums manage to sound at once graceful and stormy. One track here is not a Don Cherry composition, but one he recorded with a group of European collaborators for 1993’s album Dona Nostra, Ornette Coleman’s “Race Face.” Breiwick, Ipsen, and Drobka will play here to celebrate the release of Awake, and will likely find yet more fresh improvised pathways through these compositions. —Scott Gordon
Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore make ideal collaborators. Both are well-versed in the art of collaboration itself; Baird has played most prominently in Espers and Heron Oblivion, among others, while Lattimore has released collaborative records with Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan and versatile guitarist/synthesist/producer Jeff Zeigler. Baird has always lent a spacey, expansive energy to her more grounded and earthy psych-folk explorations. Conversely, Lattimore tends to make neoclassical ambient music that remains tethered to earth by the tactile nature of her harp playing. Their music meets where the ground and sky do, at the intersection of the pastoral and the celestial. You could probably have guessed that their 2018 collaborative album would be called something like Ghost Forests.
Ghost Forests’ six tracks unroll in a steady and gorgeous haze, with the rhythmic plucking of Lattimore’s harp gently nudging along Baird’s incantations and amorphous synth and guitar work. Out of these golden clouds of sound, more recognizable forms only begin to appear on the last two tracks of the album. “Painter Of Tygers” appends Baird’s submerged, distorted guitar and vocals with feather-light harp accents to beautiful effect. “Fair Annie,” the duo’s take on the traditional folk song of the same name, closes the record. It tells the story of two sisters reuniting, with one giving up her dowry so that the other may live independently with her children. The fact that these two kindred spirits have connected to make a beautiful record makes the song especially resonant. —Maxwell Courtright
SATURDAY OCTOBER 19
Big Thief has released an impressive sequence of albums in just under two years: 2017’s Capacity, this May’s U.F.O.F., and, most recently, this month’s Two Hands. Some bands have to work up to their crown jewels (with rare exceptions like Black Sabbath’s early streak of classics), but Big Thief’s range and tight songwriting consistently astound. Two Hands‘ “Forgotten Eyes” has a Tom Petty-esque refrain, while the album’s title track sees the NYC group doing its best Vampire Weekend impression through flavorful percussion and wiggly synths. Beyond any cerebral wonderment, “Paul” (from the band’s debut album, 2016’s Masterpiece) is guaranteed to instantly wreck listeners. Ultimately, Big Thief operates somewhere between pop and folk to offer something else entirely. Indeed, one could see Adrianne Lenker and company pivoting towards alternative country or an electronics-drenched palette in the future. Opening for Big Thief here is Ellen Kempner’s Palehound, who are touring behind this year’s Black Friday. Their strongest work yet, Black Friday is anchored by standout tracks “Aaron” and “Killer,” the latter of which takes listeners on a dark, psychedelic cruise. —Shaun Soman
SUNDAY OCTOBER 20
The characters in Alan Rudolph’s 1997 film Afterglow exist in a perpetual state of flirtation, treating screenwriterly sweet nothings like oxygen. It is perhaps only in their world that a late-90’s Nick Nolte could be treated like a molten sex god, but the Robert Altman-produced melodrama sustains a soft-focused sensuousness that can make an audience start to see romantic possibilities everywhere. Afterglow centers on two couples, the older one being Lucky and Phyllis (Nolte and Julie Christie), a handyman and a has-been actress. Marianne and Jeffrey (Lara Flynn Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller) are yuppies who live in an impossibly big apartment. Neither couple is especially happy. Shortly, Lucky and Marianne begin having an affair, and Jeffrey begins pursuing Phyllis unaware of her relation to his wife’s affair. The results are predictably emotionally charged and complicated.
Nick Nolte’s character being a handyman named Lucky Mann is one of many similarities Afterglow bears to the cliches of pornography. Characters pepper their dialogue with innuendos and gaze longingly, seemingly never more than a couple minutes from their next sexual encounter. That this quality doesn’t end up sinking the film’s emotional resonance is a minor miracle. Boyle’s earlier performance in Twin Peaks could be seen as a precursor to the space the cast of this film ekes out: each actor finds unexpected warmth and truth in the register of overcooked emotionality usually found in soap operas. These nuanced performances make the film’s innate cheesiness into its biggest strength, creating an absorbing tale of love lost and regained. —Maxwell Courtright