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Spring listens 4: A video interlude

Live footage from Cougar, maniacally fried visuals from Solid Freex, and other recent video treats from Madison musicians.

Live footage from Cougar, maniacally fried visuals from Solid Freex, and other recent video treats from Madison musicians.

The start 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. See also: Spring listens part 1, part 2, and part 3.

Cougar, “Rhinelander (Live at Capitol Theater, 2015)”

The instrumental rock band Cougar got its start in Madison but members are strewn about the country and juggling other obligations, so things are always gestating slowly between shows. Drummer David Henzie-Skogen (best known as a founding member of Youngblood Brass Band) is still in town and told us in 2016 that a third album was in the works, to follow up 2006’s Law and 2009’s Patriot. Henzie-Skogen’s label, Layered Music, has been busy on YouTube during the lockdown, posting drum exercises, instrumental cuts of Youngblood Brass Band tracks, and a bunch of other odds and ends, including a playlist of Cougar live videos from 2015. Several are drawn from a set the band played at the Capitol Theater in November of that year, opening up for breakout Madison pop outfit Phox. (Somehow I missed that show, but Cougar also played a memorable set at the Capitol Theater in 2009, as part of the ambitious but short-lived Forward Music Festival.)

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The videos sound nice and breathable, with a balance of crowd/house sound and the soundboard mix. My favorites here are the selections from Patriot, on which the band dug deeper into its electronic influences and took a more elaborate approach to recording and composition. Cougar is more interested in sinuous guitar melodies and intricate, repetitive layers than it is in blustery dynamics, so it’s interesting to watch a song like “Rhinelander” come together in the band’s three-guitar live lineup, assisted by the beautiful recording of choral vocals that opens the album version. These live videos really highlight for me how much heavy lifting bassist Todd Hill does in the band, bridging the tension of Henzie-Skogen’s drums with the fluidity of Dan Venne, Trent Johnson, and Aaron Sleator’s guitar figures.

The Social Distance Cyber Cypher

The hip-hop advocates of the Urban Community Arts Network are using the livestream medium to offer a window into the creative process. The Social Distance Cyber Cypher series brings together MCs from Madison and beyond for, well, a cypher, just through Zoom, delivering a variety of freestyles and recently written verses, some of them responding to prompts that challenge them to incorporate different words and phrases. The latest edition, on May 15, featured Protege The Pro, A.N.T. Da Hopeboy, NuNu Ghee, Maruchan Chef of Supa Friends, Milwaukee’s Taiyamo Denku. Even if you don’t manage to catch these live, they’re fun to revisit after the fact. Host Dash D.U.B. keeps everything moving at a fun pace, and the MCs keep the ideas, varied styles of writing and delivery, and perspectives flying around in a way that feels creatively nurturing. The next edition of the Social Distance Cyber Cypher will take place on May 29—follow the UCAN Facebook page for details.

Mr. Chair, “Ground Underground”

Madison quartet Mr. Chair composed its newest track as part of an ongoing collaboration with UW-Madison geoscience professor Steve Meyers, who also commissioned the title track of the band’s sprawling debut album, 2019’s Nebulebula. The video captures each member recording his parts separately at home—a common enough practice even before the pandemic, but it’s admirable to pull it off without dampening the chemistry.

These players know each other well, and they each latch onto the spacious, slinky grooves of keyboard player Jason Kutz’s composition. They also get how to pull back and give each other space, even when playing their way into heady jazz/prog/modern-classical delirium, whether that’s a nice pocket of reverb opening up around Mark Hetzler’s trombone or bassist Ben Ferris switching from a prickly electric figure to a bowed upright part. Mike Koszewski’s drums bring a liberating sense of swing to the even piece’s trickiest rhythmic tangles. Veteran recording engineer Mike Zirkel mastered the track, so it sounds as complete and polished as anything on the album.

Solid Freex, “Poor Taste”

This one’s an actual music video for a standout track from Solid Freex’s 2019 album Plastic Mystery. It’s about as odd and splattery and mischievous as the father-and-son punk trio‘s music, which deftly pulls together elements of hardcore, pop, and noise-rock. The video has the aesthetic of a well-worn VHS tape, and features two figures (guitarist Josh Coombs-Broekem and, bassist Evan Coombs-Broekema) acting out a playfully overstimulated accompaniment to the song’s rough narrative: “It happened one night at a party / A guy told a story, so I thought I’d tell a story of my own / And after I was done, he looked at me / He said it was in poor taste.” It’s no substitute for the maniacal fun of the band’s live sets, but it’s a worthy addition to Solid Freex’s track record of fried screwball artistry.  

Mama Digdown’s Brass Band, “Just The Two Of Us”

This long-running New Orleans-style brass band mourned the recent death of the great Bill Withers with an achingly joyous rendition of “Just The Two Of Us.” Sales of the track on Bandcamp will benefit the New Orleans Brass Band Musicians Relief Fund, and this video is further proof that musicians can create rousing energy together even when they’re forced to work separately.

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