Videos, singles, and collaborations from our local music community’s fertile in-between zones.
Local music does a lot of its real growing and gestating between the artificial, constrained spaces of albums and EPs—though you can read about plenty of those in our top 20 Madison records of 2020 list and our honorable mentions. Cut off from the chance to play live shows for most of 2020, Madison artists were often forced to explore online performance options, some of them resourceful and beautiful, some of them tinny and awkward. And pandemic or not, musicians are always exploring collaborations that reach beyond local boundaries, stretch different creative muscles under different monikers, and create recorded projects that aren’t neatly defined. These in-between and neither-nor grounds are littered with worthy efforts from local musicians in 2020.
Huan-Hua Chye of Madison band Gentle Brontosaurus teamed up with UK-based musician Tom Morton to form the understated pop duo Vowl Sounds. Its debut album, Message Received, is a lot less deadpan than most of Gentle Brontosaurus’ work, pairing Chye’s lyrics and graceful vocals with lush and wistful synth hooks. (Plus, Madison’s Nathan Tredinnick contributes saxophone to the closing track, “Survival.”) Vowl Sounds grew out of the February Album Writing Month project.
You’ll witness songwriting adaptations of a whole different variety in Colin Bares’ “Short Songs For No One” project (released under the moniker Colin Edwin), which was comprised of 15 tracks of micro-folk, most of which packed more emotive heft than songs five times their length. Additionally, Bares had some old work surface thanks to the long-delayed digital debut of his former band Good Grief’s extremely punchy self-titled EP, which was initially released in 2009 when the band was still based in Stevens Point (they now split members between Stevens Point and Madison). On that EP, listeners will also hear traces of Madison’s Heavy Looks, a band which would eventually feature two of Bares’ Good Grief bandmates.
Also straddling that local-but-not-entirely-local line is the experimental split EP Linx, released in after best-of season in late December 2019. Madison-based multi-instrumentalist Andrew Fitzpatrick (Bon Iver, All Tiny Creatures, Cap Alan) takes up the first side with a single 15-minute modular-synth track from his Noxroy solo moniker. On the other side are three ambient tracks from the ever-evolving and eerily organic Forest Management, aka Chicago musician John Daniel. Madison’s connections to the wider experimental music landscape also endured in Psychic Oscillations, the latest album from Madison-NYC duo Spires That In The Sunset Rise.
Singles and one-offs of note were all over the place this year. Maggie Cousin’s “Ghosts” gives us just one angle on what the versatile saxophonist/composer can do, bridging patiently developed melodic themes with warbly dissonance. Syneva’s “My Beautiful Sprinter” makes a forlorn companion to the ambient project’s full-length Star Taker, which made our top 20 this year. Indie-pop outfit Addison Christmas, with Trophy Dad’s Abby Sherman at the helm, issued a cathartic debut single and magnificently creepy video in “Afterparty,” in addition to an EP of demos. Red Pants split the gap between a pair of EP’s that made an appearance in our 2020 honorable mentions with the hushed acoustic ballad “For The Sake Of Arguments,” effectively showcasing the project’s more mindful, pensive side.
Death-metal band Ruin Dweller’s “Hell In The Sky” and its B-side “Crawlspace” make a grandiose expansion on the scuzzy menace of 2018’s Cryptic Ruin EP. We totally missed Lunar Moth’s 2019 debut EP but this April’s single “Valley Of Fire” balances some doom-metal heft with nimble garage-punk instincts. Post-rock outfit Ghostar paired its single “Catfishing Anthony Kiedis” with a text-based computer game and combined two songs in the “A Haunting In Two Parts” video. (Full disclosure: Drummer John McCracken is a Tone Madison contributor.) Meanwhile, producer Arthur Caplan’s “Clutch” introduced a young producer with an ear for moody hip-hop and crackling synth textures.
The most sensational music videos to emerge from Madison this year took on the people trying to get us all killed. “I ain’t gettin’ sick for you,” declared Midwest James on “N The House TN,” which exploded across the internet after filmmaker Ava Duvernay and Oprah tweeted about it. Midwest James is the current moniker of James Gavins, and it’s awesome to see him get the attention: He’s got a long history as a rapper (including under the name J Dante), an electrifying practitioner of dance and movement, and educator. Gavins is also a graduate of UW-Madison’s unique First Wave program, and returned to Madison last year to join the program’s staff. The year’s unavoidable theme takes an extra-absurd turn in Cribshitter’s “COVID Cove,” in which Madison’s masterful pop sickos try their hand at bro-country and the high-risk boat-party lifestyle.
“Contested Homes: Migrant Liberation Movement Suite” took plans for a far-flung interdisciplinary performance piece at UW-Madison and turned it into a long-form video. Compositions from a young musicians who’ve contributed greatly to Madison’s jazz community—including drummer Lily Finnegan and the aforementioned Maggie Cousin—help to form the basis of a half-hour of music, dance, animation, and spoken word, a truly international collaboration that also incorporates vocals and visuals from former Black Panther Party member Charlotte Hill O’Neal.
Finally, in addition to those who did a lot of work other than albums and EPs, there’s one bunch of musicians who simply put out… a bunch of albums and EPs. Hip-hop crew Supa Friends made this year’s top 20 list for their debut EP Super? No, Supa, which showcases the talents of all six members. They also put out eight other releases under the Supa Friends umbrella. A series of short solo EPs from producer Hardface The Pilot, simply titled Vol. 1 through Vol. 4, spans from actual beats to patchwork soundscapes. Megafauna gives rapper Al D a loose, sprawling solo showcase, over beats produced by Hardface. On the Transmutation EP, Al D makes the beats and crewmate Maruchan Chef expands on his brash, baritone rhymes. Then there’s smoothly understated MC SooDoNiM’s solo outing Beats + Ink Stains, produced by EARNESTLAMENT. And What Other Way?, a collaboration between Hardface and rapper Tyrel the Well Treated. Sometimes a local artist keeps you waiting, sometimes they give you a whole box set. Supa Friends capped it off this month with another single, “Clocked Out.”