A free screening of “Sunset Boulevard,” Café Coda’s grand re-opening, album release celebrations from Sinking Suns and Seasaw, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Ian Adcock Emili Earhart, Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, Mike Noto, Chali Pittman, Joel Shanahan, and Henry Solo
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THURSDAY SEPTEMBER 6
Hailing from Seattle, Will Toledo’s Car Seat Headrest delivers sensitive troubadour-rock for a new age of impressionable emos. Toledo’s trajectory isn’t unlike that of The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle—the crusty, lo-fi intimacy of Car Seat Headrest’s early records brought on a cult following, which led to a deal with Matador Records in 2015, the assembly of a full band, and slicker recordings. Also, we’d be remiss not to mention that Toledo recently made headlines for exchanging covers with ’90s bowling-shirt rockers Smash Mouth.
Surprisingly, a prime example of Toledo’s evolution arrived earlier this year in a re-recorded version of 2011’s Twin Fantasy, which takes Toledo’s crude source material from the original release and pushes it into focus with tasteful production. Sure, some of the raw urgency of the original gets lost in this revamped context, but it still works. One of the album’s highlights arrives in “High To Death,” which finds Toledo crooning, “I wish I was sober / I can’t get up off the ground” over desolate, jangling chords. The mood provided by Toledo’s atmospheric reverse-guitar lines and use of icy reverb ties the tune together in a really satisfying way. “Beach Life-In-Death” builds cleverly and beautifully underneath Toledo’s hushed exploration of an inner monologue before exploding into a shapeshifting series of sonic peaks and valleys—and drummer Andrew Katz’s agile and dynamic grooves help the song build to its power-pop apex. —Joel Shanahan
Merging elements of Gothic horror with film-noir fatalism, 1950’s Sunset Boulevard is a brilliant, caustic look at the unsavory side of Hollywood. Writer/director Billy Wilder had emigrated from Austria in the 1930s, but quickly developed a cutting use of the English language and a keen eye for the darker aspects of the American Dream. Both are in full force in Sunset Boulevard, which stars William Holden as Joe Gillis, an unsuccessful and unscrupulous screenwriter. Stumbling onto the estate of reclusive former silent film star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson in a career-defining role), Gillis pretends to help revive the delusional actress’ career. Becoming her live-in assistant/gigolo, he becomes embroiled in Desmond’s nightmarish fantasy world with fatal results.
The highlight of Sunset Boulevard is Swanson’s wild-eyed performance as Desmond, perfectly capturing the madness of a forgotten film star. Besides Swanson, the film also features icons of silent-era Hollywood such as Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim as Desmond’s sinister butler Max. Despite being a scathing attack on Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard was a massive success, receiving 18 Academy Awards nominations, and remains a widely respected classic today. Full of Wilder’s trademark acerbic wit, Sunset Boulevard is a uniquely anti-Hollywood Hollywood film. —Ian Adcock
UW-Madison alum Justine Nagan’s 2009 documentary Typeface takes us into the world of 21st-century wood type. A locus of this community in the Midwest is the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, which claims to have the world’s largest collection of individual pieces of type, which are wood blocks cut into the shape of letters, used to press ink onto anything from advertisements to leaflets. This technology was a major communication tool for hundreds of years, though its dominance was undone even before the advent of computers. Despite this obsolescence, wood type went through something of a resurgence, as artists, artisans, and craftspeople began to desire an authenticity and texture in their design works that they couldn’t get elsewhere.
The Two Rivers residents who make this kind of aesthetic preservation possible provide a level of suspense in Typeface, as they hold information, knowledge, and techniques that could leave the world with them if they don’t have a chance to pass it down. While the documentary itself defines a craft in a place and time, it is also a work of its own time, as the Great Recession looms, threatening the tourism the museum depends on. A gloomy fog sets in over Two Rivers as the museum director wonders aloud how the place could possibly stay open. Indeed, a few years after the documentary, the museum’s landlord forced it out of its historic building. Thankfully, after a call for donations and volunteers, the Hamilton Wood Type Museum successfully re-opened in 2013. In addition to the screening, Nagan will be be on hand to discuss Typeface, which she directed while serving as executive director for the Chicago non-profit Kartemquin Films. —Reid Kurkerewicz
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 7
Madison trio Sinking Suns’ second full-length, the new Bad Vibes, finds the band applying minute but thoughtful variations to guitarist Scott Udee’s warped and bent-to-oblivion riffs, drummer Gabe Johnson’s austerely angular grooves, and bassist/vocalist Dennis Ponozzo’s ominous bellow. At this point you basically know what you’re getting from this menacing noise-rock band, but that doesn’t exactly make it cookie-cutter. Even on the sternum-hammering opener “1987,” Sinking Suns makes room for gasps of atmosphere and gnarled melodic detours.
The band has always had a dash of surf-rock in its sound, and that comes to the fore in the taut interplay of bass and guitar on “Remember You Will Die” and “Zenith.” On “No Remains” and “Distant Drums,” Johnson creates a rumble that makes the listener experience a mix of sudden Hulk-strength and profound unease. At its best, Bad Vibes elevates its tough and burly sounds to a state of near-hallucinatory panic and dread, and that’s what makes Sinking Suns a special band in well-trodden territory. They’ll play this release show at Revolution Cycles, which doesn’t host a lot of live music these days but is a fun place for it—watch out for the old deaf cat nonchalantly napping on top of someone’s speaker cabinet. —Scott Gordon
PBS’ Frontline and the nonprofit newsroom ProPublica have teamed up to showcase an ongoing investigation into contemporary hate groups, with part one, Documenting Hate: Charlottesville, released this year in early August. Near the beginning of this one-hour documentary, produced by reporter A.C. Thompson, Thompson says, “if Charlottesville was a crime scene, then most of the criminals had gotten away.” He takes this as his thesis after detailing his own experience at the 2017 Unite the Right rally, where activist Heather Heyer was murdered by a white supremacist terrorist. Here we also see lesser-known footage of police standing by while right-wing extremists beat up anti-racist protestors. Thompson then focuses on tracking down individual white supremacists who were present at the rally, some of whom the FBI has known about for years. Others are flying under the criminal investigation radar, even as they’ve been identified inciting violence at protests across the country.
As Thompson digs, it becomes clear that there are multiple well-known, violent white supremacist leaders who travel from rally to rally, instructing newer members on tactics. This reporting leads to multiple consequences, as a white supremacist who worked at the enormous defense contractor, Northrop Grumman, is identified and subsequently fired, in addition to an at-the-time active duty U.S. Marine, who was spotted attacking counter-protesters. Documenting Hate shines when it shows the vital work of investigative reporting as it is being done, as Thompson works with local reporters, academia-based experts and victims of violence, and confronts white supremacists face-to-face. Frontline executive producer and UW-Madison alum Raney Aronson-Rath will visit in person here to lead a post-screening discussion. The Price Of Gold, an ESPN 30 For 30 documentary on controversial figure skater Tonya Harding, will follow at 7 p.m. —Reid Kurkerewicz
The Appleton band Dusk brings together a few of Wisconsin’s finest musical eccentrics, including Amos Pitsch of Tenement on bass and vocals, Julia Blair of Holy Sheboygan on Wurlitzer and vocals, and Colin Wilde of Black Thumb on drums. Guitarists Tyler Ditter and Ryley Crowe use a bit of rockabilly punch and swaying pedal steel to frame the band’s protean jumble of country and early R&B; Dusk’s absolute blast of a 2017 single, “(Do The) Bored Recluse” b/w “Too Sweet,” tried to unpack a vivid but never-quite-was moments where all the formative threads of rock ‘n’ roll began to tingle with magic affinity. That universe, at once haunting and comforting, expands on Dusk’s self-titled debut full-length, released earlier this year. Blair and Pitsch’s vocal trade-offs give tracks like “Stained Blue” a dynamic balance of swoon and snarl, and Blair delivers a show-stopping lead vocal performance on the ballad “Leaf,” which has also been a highlight of the band’s live sets these past few years. Expect to feel steadily rocked and strangely transported during Dusk’s set here.
Sharing the bill here is Double Grave, a Minneapolis trio that blends frantic, gleefully tuneful post-punk with a generous smear of whammy-bar shoegaze atmosphere. Double Grave recently followed its 2017 album New Year’s Daydream with a new EP, Empty Hands. On both, bassist Bree Meyer provides rich melodic foundations that free guitarist/vocalist Jeremy Warden to veer between hooks and noisy oblivion. Meyer, Warden, and drummer Seth Tracy work a lot of variety into these records and their live performances, but always operate as a lean unit that can turn on a fuzz-rattled dime. —Scott Gordon
The annual JVN Day festival celebrates the life, legacy, and multidisciplinary hip-hop artistry of John “Vietnam” Nguyen, a Chicago native who came to Madison to study in UW-Madison’s innovative First Wave program. Nguyen died tragically in 2012 when he accidentally drowned in Lake Mendota. Since then, his fellow poets, rappers, and dancers in First Wave have marked the approximate anniversary of his death with a festival that highlights the array of artistic practices and opportunities for political empowerment that hip-hop has nurtured.
This year’s JVN Day kicks off with a morning open-mic on the shore of Lake Mendota (Friday, 9:30 to 11 a.m., Wisconsin Alumni Association building). Friday also features a sort of open-studio project called The Screwtape (11 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the JVN Project’s offices at 333 East Campus Mall), where MCs of all skill levels can drop by and record their bars over a selection of pre-made beats, and a screening (6 p.m., Union South Marquee) of a new Wisconsin Public Television documentary about the First Wave program, made with production contributions from First Wave alum Johnny Chang. Saturday is an all-day series of workshops at the Student Activity Center off East Campus Mall, with sessions on songwriting, DJing, dancing, graffiti, and fashion design. Sunday brings an afternoon of breakdancing battles, graffiti, and socializing (noon to 5 p.m., Sellery Hall basketball courts), and culminates with a concert on the Terrace (7:30 to 9:30 p.m.) headlined by Rhymesayers rapper Sa-Roc, and featuring a host of First Wave-associated artists, including Synovia Alexis, DJ knowsthetime, and KennyHoopla. —Scott Gordon
WSUM’s annual music bash has had a varied history, ranging from the end-of-school Party In The Park that brought Andrew W.K. and the White Stripes to James Madison Park in the early oughts, to the current welcome-to-school fests usually held at one of the two student unions, or at the now-shuttered downtown club The Frequency. (Full disclosure: This writer was involved with WSUM for several years, including a stint as station manager.) Though there have been times where the lineups truly cater to many genres, usually the focus is on indie–rock, as you would expect to be the case from a college radio station.
This year’s welcome-back-to-school fest puts an emphasis on Chicago noise-rock, with headlining sets from Melkbelly and Wei Zhongle. Melkbelly comes out of the Chicago DIY rock scene, and the band’s 2017 album Nothing Valley pivots from vocalist Miranda Winters’ channeling straight-up Breeders-like melodies on “Cawthra” and “Greedy Gull” to angular instrumentation akin to Boredoms or Lightning Bolt on “Twin Lookin’ Motherfucker.”
Wei Zhongle’s dreamy, bizarre avant-pop builds on intricate grooves, with Rob Jacobs’ croon complemented by John McCowen’s electric clarinet loops. The ensemble shines in the interplay among members who are well-versed in collaboration: bassist Pat Keen plays with pop musician Ryan Power and art punkers Guerilla Toss; Phil Sudderberg plays in celebrated jazz reedist Ken Vandermark’s project Marker and performs with Jacobs in the noisy duo Barn Duet; McCowen is a composer with his own releases on Sudderberg’s label Gilded Records.
Don’t expect all Chicago-based rock, though. Minneapolis-based The Florists make fun, danceable punk that alternates between tight riffs, deadpan vocals, and a couple of nice guitar freak-out sessions. And Madison-based Joey Bee, co-founder of a burgeoning nightlife organization for queer folks, will spin tracks as DJ Boyfrrriend. —Chali Pittman
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 8
Madison rock duo Seasaw will have a refined sound to share at this show celebrating the release of their new record Big Dogs, the follow-up to 2016‘s Too Much Of A Good Thing. The title and substance of Big Dogs, members Meg Golz and Eve Wilczewski explain, originated from an incident in which a man took it upon himself to harshly accost them at a show. Across the record, Golz and Wilczewski respond to not just this “big dog” in particular, but the entire big-dog culture that creates rude barkers like him. And in doing so, Golz and Wilczewski have created their most focused, self-possessed work yet.
Gone are the moments and entire tracks like Too Much’s “Gone Fishin,” on which Golz and Wilczewski would dip their pens into the wells of many genres and styles. No, there aren‘t any funky organ solos to be found on this LP. Instead, the pair commit to a punchy rock nucleus across the record, occasionally drawing on the production quirkiness of their past. The difference this time is Golz and Wilczewski use production twists to color the margins of tracks rather than placing them front-and-center. That approach is in full effect on the album’s first single, “God(zilla).” Over alternately minimal and loud guitar riffs, Golz and Wilczewski build themselves and each other up in the face of various struggles through both solo and harmonized singing. They take a similar approach on the record’s closing track, “Knockout,” which starts off with restrained guitar strums and a driving drum groove before gradually stacking on more components and taking on a greater rhythmic complexity.
Golz and Wilczewski have always been gifted vocalists and share a knack for knowing when one should take the lead and when they should combine for hooks or brief moments. Here, without the bells and whistles of their last records, this vocal dynamic shines through and with it Golz and Wilczewski‘s confidence as songwriters. On “God(zilla),” “Knockout” and the rest of Big Dogs, listeners get to see two artists who‘ve come into their own and present themselves fully. The result is a purer, more substantive record that offers a whole new perspective on Seasaw. —Henry Solo
Café Coda, a jazz club with saxophonist Hanah Jon Taylor at the helm, has endured a bumpy ride but still managed to make a real contribution to Madison’s music community. The venue first opened in early 2017 in the former Fountain bar on State Street, but only lasted there about six months. Still, in that time Coda became home to a weekly Latin jazz jam, hosted performances from Madison-based notables like pianist Joan Wildman, and brought in renowned jazz artists from out of town, perhaps most notably a June 2017 performance from saxophonist David Murray and percussionist Kahil El’Zabar. But in August 2017, Coda had to vacate, because its downtown building is slated for demolition so that developers can build “another designer motherfuckin’ hotel,” as Taylor memorably announced to the audience at that David Murray show. But Taylor quickly set to work finding a new location, and it’s finally here, in the former PaintBar space on Willy Street.
The new space’s grand opening will be an all-day affair, starting at noon with a community drum circle, which is slated to be one of Coda’s recurring weekly events. At 3 p.m., Coda will host an open house—there’s been a lot of renovation at the space in a short period of time, and it will be interesting to see how the staff has gone about transforming it from, well, a paint bar into Taylor’s vision of a proper, intimate jazz club with an elegant bar that serves “good booze.” The grand opening will culminate in two trio sets (7:30 and 9:30 p.m.) from Alexis Lombre, a jazz pianist who divides her time between Detroit and her native Chicago. Lombre’s debut album as bandleader, 2017’s Southside Sounds, uses original compositions to fondly explore Chicago’s jazz and blues legacy. The blues element comes to the fore most strongly on “Lonely Path” and “Why I Don’t Know,” and Lombre channels some of McCoy Tyner’s stormy grandeur on the opening track, “A Blues In Tyne.” —Scott Gordon
Across a handful of singles and EPs and several years busking as a street musician, LA singer and multi-instrumentalist Naia Izumi has created a distinct approach to songwriting that sails his rich, quavering voice over nimble guitar figures that draw on math-rock and funk. On songs like “Never Mind” and “Soft Spoken,” Izumi uses a finger-tapping guitar technique that’s most often associated with wonky virtuosos, but gets that in the right hand (pun intended) it can wring a whole additional dimension of melodic fluidity from the guitar. These guitar parts spiral and flicker, and sometimes use looping to create an extra shade of atmosphere, but Izumi’s music is too emotionally and rhythmically complex to be lumped in with that of your typical singer-songwriter or loop-wrangler. More recently, Izumi’s been playing in a trio format that fleshes out his balance of accessible, R&B-tinged melody and angular riffing. DJ knowsthetime will play a dance-party set here after Izumi’s headlining performance. —Scott Gordon
SUNDAY SEPTEMBER 9
One of the more obscure films in West German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s huge oeuvre, Chinese Roulette (1976) depicts bourgeois family life as a series of games and power struggles. By the time the ensemble cast finally plays the titular truth-guessing game in the third act, the plot has already built up many layers of cruelty and trickery. A rich industrialist, Gerard Christ (Ulli Lommell) means to bring his mistress (Anna Karina) to his country estate. Unfortunately, his daughter Angela, who blames her need for crutches on her parents’ infidelities, has arranged for his wife (Margit Cartensen) and her lover to secretly vacation there as well. When the four cheaters meet, they all laugh before an awkward silence falls, and Angela announces herself as the puppetmaster.
The adults try to make the best of it, and spend the weekend together, all the while disturbing the housekeeper, Kast (Brigitte Mira), who pushes her son to publish his vapid writing with help from Christ. Finally, there is the daughter’s mute maid, Traunitz (Masha Méril) who is the only source of tenderness in the film, as she cares for the lonely child even as she lashes out at the people who have abandoned her. Chinese Roulette would have the feel of a play, almost completely taking place within the mansion, if it weren’t for the exceptional camera work of Michael Ballhaus (who also worked with Coppola and Scorsese). The camera often zooms in on faces barely holding back rage, and doubles, refracts and distorts the characters behind panes of glass as they reconsider themselves under the harsh judgment of others. For an additional treat, the soundtrack features an early Kraftwerk single, which Traunitz dances to on Angela’s crutches. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Bass clarinetist Jason Stein plays here in a new trio with two other dedicated Chicago jazz musicians, guitarist Ben Cruz and drummer Emerson Hunton. Over the last decade, Stein has produced a healthy recorded output as a leader and sideman, performing actively with standout Chicago-area musicians including Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society, trumpeter Russ Johnson, and percussionist Charles Rumback. Stein also boasts collaborations with free jazz luminaries Anthony Braxton and John Zorn, as well as hardcore outfit Millions Of Dead Cops. Stein released his latest record, After Caroline, in May on Northern Spy under the name Jason Stein’s Locksmith Isidore. On this record, with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Mike Pride, Stein displays a range of extended technique on bass clarinet—something refreshing and somewhat rare for the woodwind-led jazz combo. Cruz and drummer Hunton have their own extensive collaborative track records, notably with saxophonist Greg Ward (who has played featured Arts + Literature Laboratory’s jazz series several times before). It will be curious to hear how the various colors of guitar and bass clarinet blend together over Hunton’s grooves, and this new collaboration will surely be fresh to most if not all ears. —Emili Earhart
TUESDAY SEPTEMBER 11
Todd Rundgren has been a cult figure for so long that it is often hard for most to remember just how many classic projects he’s been involved with. But Rundgren’s status as a hugely talented, but mercurial producer and multi-instrumentalist was set in stone as early as 1972, when his best-known album, Something/Anything? (a legendary studio double on which Rundgren famously made the first three sides entirely on his own in Los Angeles and the fourth side with an ad hoc pickup band of session players assembled over a weekend in New York), and projects for other artists like The Band’s Stage Fright and Sparks’ debut made him a potential superstar.
Rundgren certainly had the juice for stardom, if he’d wanted it. He had a seemingly effortless knack for pop melody and song construction, a lovely and somewhat reedy tenor that often sounded astonishing multi-tracked with itself, a phenomenal facility for polished and ear-grabbing studio arrangements, and even a lot of finger-flashing technique on guitar, though he usually wrote most of his music on piano and played as many other instruments as he could find when he wanted to. In short, Rundgren must have seemed like an almost stereotypically marketable singer-songwriter for some studio executives and music fans in the early ’70s, and it was maybe that uncomplicated reception of an image he didn’t have much control over that made him go left.
Rundgren had always had a perverse streak, which had previously manifested itself in his peculiar and sometimes irritating sense of humor. But people noticed that something was up when he followed Something/Anything? with 1973’s A Wizard, A True Star—a crazed 55-minute single LP with a mescaline-throttled 26-minute medley of gorgeously crafted, obsessively overdubbed pop song fragments on side A, and a 29-minute group of somewhat more conventional, but no less excessive soul and prog rock-influenced songs (including a 10-minute medley of four R&B covers) on side B. A Wizard, A True Star has gained a dedicated cult following in recent years. However, it was regarded as an unwieldy and bizarre indulgence at the time, and while there may have been some truth in that assessment, it was also possibly Rundgren’s greatest album.
From then on, it was clear that Rundgren’s production career, which included everything from mega-selling triumphs of bad taste like Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell to highly critically regarded college radio staples like XTC’s Skylarking, was mostly going to fund his further exploits as a solo artist. Rundgren proceeded to devote himself wholeheartedly to anything he wanted to do, whether it was more wild fusions between R&B-influenced pop and hallucinatory electronic experiments (1974’s underrated, inconsistent but often wonderful Todd), deliberately lightweight but very well-done pop (1978’s Hermit Of Mink Hollow), dreadful, manically overstuffed technological flatulence (1975’s Initiation, with 35 blood-soaked minutes of idiotic synthesizer doodles on side B, sounds like a vomitous collision of David Sanborn’s idea of Motown, a warped ELP record and the soundtrack to Takeshi’s Challenge)—it’s all there, along with a full side career as the bandleader of the decent prog-rock/new wave group Utopia. A listener frequently needs to already be on board with what Rundgren’s selling to take most of it, which is the confidence and freakish amount of technique necessary to make sure you’re going along with wherever his whimsy takes him—even if it’s “interactive” albums that took advantage of the latest in then-current (and now hopelessly dated) computer technology or a grating, ska-like pop song that became the Green Bay Packers’ unofficial anthem. Yes: Todd Rundgren also made “Bang On The Drum All Day,” a piece of unmitigated dreck that features none of his usual expertise and his sense of humor at its most aggravating, but survives like crabgrass and empty Pabst cans at football fields in Wisconsin everywhere.
This show at the Orpheum is billed as an “unpredictable night” with Todd, which means that, as usual, he’s probably going to do just whatever he wants to do—a smattering of hits to keep some ’70s nostalgia heads happy, a deep dive into album cuts that’ll make him and his diehards happy, and some deliberately weird idiosyncrasy that’ll only make him happy. His voice has become a bit rougher with the years, as could be expected, but his natural musicality remains—and that, usually, will do. —Mike Noto