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Spring listens 1: Shut-in rhymes, live electronics, water sounds

The first in a brief series catching up on recent releases from Madison musicians.

The first quarter of 2020 has been a staggeringly productive time for musicians in Madison. It’s been tough to keep up with, not just because of world events but because people are putting out a ton of noteworthy albums, EPs, singles, videos, and live recordings, and the widely scattered variety of local music is in full force. (Plus there’s at least one good recording of a rare live set from a Green Bay musician so… whatever, I’m counting it.) We’ve covered some of it already in a recent podcast and dozens of other music features this year. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to do some additional catching up, a few releases at a time. We have a lot in mind for this rolling feature already, but suggestions are always welcome.

Rob Dz, “Social Distance”

Cooped up like the rest of us, MC and spoken-word artist Rob Dz has responded with playfulness and a gift for transforming a few simple ideas into engaging rhymes. He released “Social Distance” with a low-budget video featuring a bunch of little toy animals against an idyllic photo backdrop, to accompany a refrain of “I just want to go outside.” You’ll also notice the logo for the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program, where Dz, real name Rob Franklin, teaches multimedia skills to local youth. 

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As charming as this austerely produced track is, the reminders of all the stuff we could be doing around town outside are kind of torturous:”It’s about time for Genna’s patio / like right about the time when there’s no more snow / Cabin fever kicked in about a week ago,” Franklin declares, making me yearn for the simple pleasures of, seriously, running into Rob Dz on the Genna’s patio. As the song winds up, he calls out a bunch of local parks and the “Union Terrace and them.” He continues to reflect on the stress of isolation but also finds a little more peace and acceptance, on another recent track, “Good Morning.” 

Casino Versus Japan, Live 2019

Casino Versus Japan is the solo project of Green Bay guitarist and producer Erik Kowalski. He played a rare Madison show last summer at the dance music-focused record store JiggyJamz, and has temporarily made the soundboard recording available on Bandcamp to raise funds for coronavirus relief efforts. I was really bummed to miss this show, but luckily the recording quality of this flowing 48-minute set is quite good. With an assist from Brian Foote (who also was on the bill that day in his solo project Leesh), Kowalski incorporates a great deal of the project’s breadth, from murmurs of ambient guitar to pulses of fractured beats. 

For all the options at their disposal (guitar, synth, sampler, effects) and all the experimenting Casino Versus Japan has done over the past 20-odd years, Kowalski and Foote work together with remarkable patience and focus. The set has the range and openness of something improvised, but the episodic structure of something planned. There’s never too much information at once here, just one phase gliding gently but distinctly into the next.

Asumaya, Of Water, Land, & Sky

Asumaya usually sets out to build highly layered, full songs from the efforts of one musician, Luke Bassuener. Even in live sets, it’s just Bassuener, looping together tense percussion arrangements, slithery post-punk bass lines, bright bristly mbira melodies, and vocals into complete musical and lyrical statements. Of Water, Land, & Sky upends that process to create something more spacious and abstract. Made as part of an arts residency at the Sheboygan-based Glacial Lakes Conservancy, the project incorporates field recordings of water and bird calls into rhythmic instrumentals. Bassuener seems to let the natural affinity among these sounds guide him, not altering the field recordings very much and never chopping things up beyond recognition. Most Asumaya songs capture what it’s like to feel deeply at odds with the world. The 11 pieces on Of Water, Land, & Sky make me feel calmly connected.

Stuff I’m looking forward to: A new EP from The German Art Students, a cassette mix series from Anthropocene Recordings, and getting a little more time in with some releases I’ve flagged for my next installment of this series.

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