A look at some (mostly) standalone tracks that stood out.
Musicians in Madison did plenty of great work this year in the form of albums and EPs, but we can’t do justice to their recorded efforts without factoring in more compact releases. From the hip-hop community’s broad splatter of SoundCloud tracks to underground metal 7-inches, here’s a quick look at some of our favorite singles of 2018.
Cap Alan, the experimental duo of drummer Jeff Sauer (Czarbles, Houses In Motion) and synth manipulator Andrew Fitzpatrick (Noxroy, All Tiny Creatures, Bon Iver), balances concision and wide-open sonic ambition, on this three-song release, which is brief enough that it feels more like a single than an EP. This band’s live sets can get all over the place, with Fitzpatrick’s ever-evolving array of electronics sprawling across Sauer’s radically minimal drumming (sometimes Sauer’s drumkit for Cap Alan sets consists only of a bass drum, snare, and hi-hat). Percussionist Paddy Cassidy (Immigré, Tani Diakite And The Afrofunkstars) often plays live with Cap Alan, and he adds a tactile warmth to Fitzpatrick’s squishy abstractions. “Plaid Pantry” is the clear standout here, balancing unruly sonic mischief with the impulse to shape it all into something orderly and compact. —Scott Gordon
Denver native and UW-Madison grad student Luke Leavitt’s recent work under the name Cop Circles pairs the warm essentials of house music with loose, strolling keyboard lines, and his live performances often involve meandering piano improvisations over playfully swinging beat sequences. On “Penultimate Conclusions,” Leavitt’s ability to juggle the dance floor with the bigger picture translates into a glittering synth line that slowly unfurls atop a driving pattern of frizzy drum samples. Leavitt has all sorts of rhythmic, textural, and vocal tricks for keeping listeners a bit off-balance, and he put those to good use on 2016’s Cosmetic Warp. But “Penultimate Conclusions” takes a welcome turn into bright and guileless territory. It’s a house jam with an unmistakably friendly embrace. Its release this spring also came paired with “Highway,” a floaty, funky collaboration with Madison R&B singer/producer Mr. Jackson. —Scott Gordon
Dequadray White released one album (Dequadray! A Black Sitcom) and one EP (Antares, which made our top 20 list) in 2018 while studying in UW-Madison’s First Wave program, and both records find him creating an array of R&B tracks that balance the tender with the playful. In between, he released the one-off track “On The Regular,” which finds him crooning woozy verses over a scratchy acoustic guitar and delivering a compact vocal hook of “callmeontheregular, callmeontheregular.” It’s quick, it’s simple, and it sticks. The version Dequadray released on SoundCloud feels pretty restrained, but in his live sets, “On The Regular” takes on a giddy, flirtatious energy. —Scott Gordon
Since its 2016 debut, Disq I, the young songwriting duo of Disq (Isaac deBroux-Slone and Raina Bock) has steadily enjoyed a warm reception in Madison’s indie rock scene alongside peers like Trophy Dad, Post Social and Dash Hounds. Diq’s uniquely noise-tinged power-pop and boisterous live shows as a quintet have both facilitated the band’s snowballing nationwide appeal. In mid-November, Stereogum premiered the video for “Communication,” the A-side of a 7-inch due for physical release in mid-January 2019 through Omaha label Saddle Creek’s singles series.
A high point of Disq’s recent packed sets at the High Noon Saloon and Art In, “Communication” finds Bock’s flexible bass lines playing off deBroux-Slone’s sticky, quavering guitar chords and wistful, yet honeyed vocal performance. The leisurely instrumental build of the extended intro yields to a repeated plea from deBroux-Slone in the verse: “Can you hear me?” His words immediately serve as a coy, self-aware introduction of the band, while prompting an inquiry into the desire to be acknowledged in a hyper-saturated social media landscape.
As the song drives to the chorus, the anthemic, syllabic vocal line “Commun-i-ca-tion takes me farther away / Will I change or will it stay this way?” reveals more of the complexities involved in grappling with one’s emotional intelligence before the tune dips into a crunchy bridge of fiery lead guitar. Coupled with the music video’s washed-out color palette and array of aerial shots and handheld close-ups, a collagist amalgam of naturalistic/synthetic imagery and modern/archival video footage reflects the dualities at the song’s thematic center. —Grant Phipps
With a slick snare beat and demure guitar lick, Kenny Hoopla’s (real name Kenneth La’ron) last single of 2018 opens up with the same sleekness and sense of control that’s been surging on his more recent releases. Absent on them are the breakdowns, both vocally and production-wise, that dominated his 2016 debut EP Beneath The Willow Tree. On “Lost Cause” in particular, the singer/rapper trades raw emotion and spontaneity for precision and incisiveness. La’ron still delves into the same themes—lost love and loss of life—that he always has, but this time he circles the pit and wades gradually into the darkness instead of crashing in. The narrative threads he establishes are less nebulous but still mystified. “Lost Cause” isn’t necessarily the best song La’ron released this year—that honor goes to “Sickness”—but it is perhaps the most important, because it shows a different songwriting side of one of Madison’s most promising artists. This song finds him embracing a less-is-more approach and expressing his dark confusion with newfound clarity. —Henry Solo
A couple days ahead of the official release of Mori Mente’s EP Comparison (The Thief Of Joy), which ranked among our favorite records of of 2018, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Courtney Jarman dropped a music video she made for the EP’s single, “The Dark Prince.” Adorned with an alluringly dark gaiety, the visuals feature lavish juxtapositions of puckish, pastoral daydreams and more sinister, ritualistic, nocturnal symbols of the occult that complement the song’s uniquely adept blend of stylistic influences.
Oscillating between synth-pop and dark folk while relaying sugary nursery rhyme-like lyrics in its verses (harmonized in falsetto with fellow Madison musician William Z. Villain), the tune wouldn’t seem misplaced on a Danny Elfman soundtrack to a Tim Burton production. The playfully eccentric structure and medley of timbres on “The Dark Prince” also echo the mode in which Jarman was co-writing with her former art rock band Dharmonic Deluxe earlier this decade (especially relevant considering another track on the EP, “Golden Arrow,” is an instrumental rearrangement of a song on that earlier band’s lone studio album).
As Mori Mente’s song slinks to its pre-chorus, former Madisonian Ben Willis lends his talents through a pronounced, bowed bass line before Jarman coolly enters with a nasally retro synth tone accompanied by a multi-tracked vocal warning: “When the dark prince arrives, please don’t look into his eyes.” The latter half of the song precisely reemphasizes the former’s cadences, then expands to include several measures of steady percussion and melodica, and starkly concludes with subtly whirling synths. In the accompanying video, the camera drolly zooms into the eyes of a cat, perhaps suggesting that the titular character has devilishly taken on the form of a feline after all (Lelu, as accredited). —Grant Phipps
For a limited-edition Record Store Day Black Friday release, Madison-based musician Bucky Pope (currently of Negative Example and formerly of Tar Babies) and punk lifer Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE, etc.) pulled together a collaborative session in San Pedro, California with drummer John Herndon of Tortoise, flute/sax player Vince Meghrouni, and keyboard player Pete Mazich. On the first side, Pope leads the band in a rendition of his original song “Nuts.” It’s written in the vein of Negative Example’s bizarro airing-of-grievances funk, and Meghrouni’s flute adds both tension and melodic counterpart to Pope’s prickly guitar and even pricklier vocal delivery. On the other side, Watt’s slinky bass line leads the quintet into a wonderfully dreamy rendition of Sun Ra’s “Tiny Pyramids.” While this performance is a real showcase for Meghrouni’s layered horn and flute arrangements, Pope’s sly, warped approach to the electric guitar serves the piece perfectly. —Scott Gordon
Tubal Cain, “Angel Of 12 Wings”/”Lycanthropix”
It’s been a good year for heavy music in Madison, with a range of bands making memorable contributions to metal, hardcore, and other noisy abrasive genres: No Question, Black Cat, Ruin Dweller, No Hoax, House Of Lud, Poney, and Dumb Vision, to name a few. On top of all that, Tubal Cain plowed ahead with its austere and highly effective approach to black metal, playing pretty frequent shows and, late in the year, expanding from a duo to a trio. Before adding Bo Chrome Bones (formerly of the much-missed Panther) on bass, guitarist/vocalist Alex Drake and drummer/vocalist Kristine Drake recorded these two songs and released them as a vinyl 7-inch. You’ll have to buy it from the band at a show or track it down at a local record store, as the band hasn’t put it online yet, and waited a long while to upload its 2016 album Black Eden to Bandcamp.
And like the songs on Black Eden, “Angel Of 12 Wings” and “Lycanthropix” come through with buzz-saw riffs, swaggering drums, and the gleefully sinister combination of Kristine and Alex’s guttural screamed vocals. There’s no sonic embellishment or distraction here, just metal that goes for the jugular with incisive, catchy songwriting and powerful execution. It’s a lot like seeing Tubal Cain live, an experience that only gets richer over time. —Scott Gordon