In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher
We at Tone Madison have spent this week getting ready to make some final decisions about our year-end coverage of Madison music. (We’ve also got a playlist to make for our best of 2018 listening party on December 15 at BarleyPop.) I wanted to take a break from scratching my head over all this—What’s top 20 material? What should go in our honorable mentions list? What are we on the fence about? Can we trust our frazzled memories to adequately encapsulate a whole damn year of variety and change in the local music community?—to appreciate some of the cassettes that have accrued in my life.
The 21st-century cassette “revival” has been going on in some form or another for as long as, well, as long as people have bothered to embrace this anachronistic format anew. And underground “cassette culture” has of course existed for much longer, filling gaps the music industry otherwise wasn’t serving, from obscure electronic music to live bootlegs. Just about every year for the past decade and change, the manufacture of new cassette releases inspires a new batch of trend stories from people just now starting to take note. I’m glad that the music journalist Marc Masters, author of Bandcamp’s Hi-Bias tape column, is working on a book about cassettes, because the whole thing seems misunderstood and the documentation we have now is piecemeal at best.
As someone who listens to a bit of everything format-wise, and only occasionally has a functioning cassette player, I mostly appreciate tapes when they come from an artist I want to support and when people use the format’s packaging to create something that pairs well with the music. Most of the time the music is available online anyway, and the physical object is a comforting, anchoring presence.
Madison punk band No Hoax’s first and last album, 2018’s Black Out Tapes, had a limited run of 50 “wasabi green” cassettes, a nice follow-up to the band’s 2016 EP (untitled), which came out as a glittery red tape, with a J-card featuring a gruesome rat king on the front and a maze on the inside. The J-card of hip-hop producer knowsthetime’s Summer’s End beat tape sports a photo of the late rapper Prodigy posing on a dirtbike in a kitchen; the tape itself is a translucent purple, with “rap to this in yr car!” written on one side.
The cassette version of the 2016 debut EP from Madison doom duo Dosmalés celebrated the Aztalan giant hoax on its cover. A split cassette from 2013 features on one side the gorgeous, disjointed pop of The Wets, a now-defunct band I miss a lot, and on the other the scrappy punk duo A Haircut. The cassette itself is a soft pink, labeled on each side with pale sea-green decals. Electronic producer Chants issued a translucent blue cassette of his 2015 album We Are All Underwater, and post-punk duo Christian Dior used nice fabric pouches instead of plastic cases for its 2015 EP Patriot Glass/Dioria. Milwaukee experimental musician Jon Mueller’s 2016 release A Magnetic Center takes a more mysterious approach: its cassette case is black cardstock, with a slightly different, textured piece of black art mounted on the front. It initially came wrapped in foil, but I’ve lost that.
Call them frivolous or precious—I can’t necessarily disagree—but what few cassettes I have all make me feel justified in occasionally buying a cassette.
New this week:
Loren Sommer copes with a deflating Packers season.
We’re hosting a mayoral forum on the arts on January 16 at the Barrymore.
Willy Street printing institution Lakeside Press will close at the end of 2018.
Scott Gordon profiles Janesville-based producer Thatslife, who made his recent EP in the wake of a life-altering accident.
While this newsletter was taking a Thanksgiving break, you can bet we also celebrated Cool Building Day.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Silas Ritchie shares a mix from a DJ set at JiggyJamz. Madison band Miyha released a new song as a live recording. Electronic producer Tarek Sabbar released a new track too. Trapo will perform at a December 8 taping at the Wisconsin Public Television studios on campus.
This week’s Madison calendar: Muriel Simms shares her new oral history of Madison’s early African-American residents. Activist and prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba speaks on campus. Minneapolis band Blaha celebrates a new album at Mickey’s Tavern. The Vanishing screens at UW Cinematheque. And more.