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Spring listens 3: Loss, raw and tender

New releases from Vanishing Kids, Oliver Gomez, Kat And The Hurricane, and Nnirror.

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. 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.

Vanishing Kids, Invisible Home EP reissue

Vanishing Kids’ founding members, Nikki Drohomyreky and Jason Hartman, have moved back and forth between Madison and Portland, Oregon a couple of times since starting the band in 2000. For most of the past decade the band has been solidly Madison-based, kept a consistent lineup, and developed a cohesive sound, as captured on 2018’s absolute monument of luxurious gloom, Heavy Dreamer. Before that, though, it went through a ton of different lineup changes, which actually served the band well, helping it explore a patchwork of elements drawn from across the annals of post-punk and metal. One former member, Lauren Katherine Newman, died this past December after years of contributing to Portland’s music community as a drummer, guitarist, and producer. 

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The band is reissuing a couple of recordings Newman played drums on during the band’s Portland phase, starting with 2004’s Invisible Home EP. Madison-based recording engineer Dustin Sisson has remastered the EP’s three tracks, and Drohomyreky collaborated with designer and artist Lacey Smith (formerly of the band Zebras) to create a new version of the cover art for a cassette edition. The opening track, a nine-minute instrumental called “Snow Angel,” finds Newman perfectly in tune with the balance of heaviness and sweeping romance that has often been at the heart of Vanishing Kids’ music. A restless, rustling snare builds up the tension of “Invisible Home,” offering a sharp counterpoint to Drohomyreky’s yearning vocal and languid synth lines. “Doorbell On The Coffin,” meanwhile, foregrounds the influence of bleak and eccentric metal bands like Voivod, another long-running theme in the band’s music. 

Kat And The Hurricane, Libra

The second EP from songwriter/vocalist/guitarist Kat Farnsworth’s project turns heartbreak, guilt, and agonizing emotional boundaries into a comforting embrace and maybe a firm, loving nudge forward. Libra is also Kat And The Hurricane’s first recording in its current lineup, with Benjamin Rose on keys and vocals and Alex Nelson on drums, and the three also push far beyond the largely acoustic production of 2017’s Miles Away, finding a happy medium between folk and polished electronic pop. (Nelson is the co-host of Record Store Dropouts, a podcast that partners with Tone Madison.) The opening track, “Over You,” gradually builds up its refrain of “I’ll be hurting for the rest of my life” into a gang-vocal finale with almost stadium-stomping import—but Farnsworth’s frank, vulnerable lead vocal stays right at the front, giving us an approachable path into all those bold layers. The arrangements, flexible yet never overloaded, also work well for more subdued numbers, especially “Libra,” which gives plenty of breathing room to Rose’s shimmering piano chords (with additional synth from Ryan Thomas) and Nelson’s crackling, processed drums. 

“Walls” pairs tense acoustic-guitar arpeggios with Daniel Haschke’s sax and flute to unpack what it’s like to overcome both societal persecution and one’s own emotional hangups. Farnsworth’s lyrics are always blunt, but at the same time emphasize the possibility of getting stronger, more kind, more confident, and more self-aware. “I see a lot of myself in you, and I’m scared of what I see,” Farnsworth sings on “Pieces,” a song that sounds very much like someone offering a tough self-assessment to a new romantic interest: “I gave a lot of the wrong people the right pieces of me / And I don’t have much left, but I want to give you the rest.” (It reminds me a bit of British band Elbow’s “Starlings,” on which lead singer Guy Garvey admits, “So yes, I guess I’m asking you / To back a horse that’s good for glue and nothing else.”) The sleek production on Libra doesn’t sugarcoat things at all—it reflects the EP’s themes of progress and resilience.

Oliver Gomez, The Grief Suite

Bassist and composer Oliver Gomez is a senior at Sun Prairie High School. With a group of his peers, the six-piece Happy Feet Combo, Gomez (with co-composer Sammy Miller) crafted a debut album that uses jazz to explore the five stages of grief—one track each for denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. “Denial” starts things off with a strolling, almost sinister blues, and captures the strengths of the band’s horn arrangements. Trombone players Chai Devil and Tyler Stoll and tenor saxophonist Pierre Tan dart around each other with giddy figures that threaten to tip over into despair at any moment, using trombone mutes to create sounds that evoke both laughter and sobs. Right off the bat, the players show an understanding of the vast ambiguity of grief—a universal experience, but one that’s so profoundly different for each one of us.

The most accomplished track on The Grief Suite is “Bargaining,” a patiently executed exchange tinged with a fragile hope. Gomez’s restrained bass line, pianist Kallan Engelson’s gently rising and falling chords, and drummer Samwise Baker’s delicate touch all help to give the composition a rich atmosphere, as the horns unravel melodic themes that parallel the often erratic gains one makes during the grieving process. The album as a whole does lean on the more traditional end of jazz, often sounding like an apt variation on a New Orleans jazz funeral, especially on “Anger” and “Acceptance.” So in that sense it can feel a bit conservative stylistically, but it’s still exciting to hear a group of young musicians pull off something with this much ambition and emotional maturity. 

Nnirror, Fenestral Spirit

Electronic musician Michael Cella’s solo project Nnirror puts modular synthesizers and software in conversation with each other, sending signals and feedback both ways. The six tracks of Cella’s newest release, Fenestral Spirit, strike a nice balance between the extremes that this approach opens up. The stretchy rhythms of “∆rangeknock 1 2 stirpaddle” just barely give a listener something to grab onto as the synth patches pool and splinter, and “planar” offers a few soothing layers to go with a rock polisher of abstraction. “Neon Tar” hints at Cella’s playful side and explores a wide variety of textures in just two minutes. Across the EP, he’s clearly put a lot of work into boiling his experiments down into brief pieces, which is a very challenging thing to do in the unwieldy expanse of modular synthesis. 

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