I seriously struggle with the notion that I might be biased just because I live here, and then I go see Decibully play at the BBC and wonder how the hell this band is not playing auditoriums across the country. Milwaukee is brimming with great local talent, but with such pitiful coverage in the local papers/zines/websites, it’s no wonder nobody knows. Until more people start coming HERE for their information (or the terrific Fan Belt Milwaukee blog), they have The Onion to thank for the best local music coverage? That’s pathetic. Jeers, Journal-Sentinel, for being more concerned with some quarterback in New York than your own city’s music scene. Jeers, Shepherd Express, for trying to spread yourself so thin that you can barely offer up a sentence at a time for any local band (I feel sorry for your sex columnist, too; your lack of confidence in her AND your website is painfully obvious). Jeers, Vital Source, for this year’s unimaginative and barely informative “local music issue”, which ended in a scathing and pessimistic condemnation of the Milwaukee scene. Whose side are you on? Maybe you were already planning on jettisoning your print edition? Jeers, OnMilwaukee.com, for either removing or hiding your local music jukebox thingy. And couldn’t you get somebody to at least do a top ten list? On top of this, your music listings are so outdated, only one of the groups on my list below even appears under “bands” on your site. Yeesh. Thank God for the radio! Not only do we have the Mighty 91.7 playing every conceivable stripe of brew city music (particularly rewarding is the local live segment every Tuesday night at eight); now that 88nine is really rolling along, it’s injected tons of Milwaukee artists into the rotation with little fanfare. If you don’t make a big deal about it all the time, you get people to jam along in the car, then go “wow, that band is from my city?” Even 102.1 is in on the cause, as its morning guys, Kramp & Adler, have given a lot of air time to local music and talking with local artists, even interviewing WMSE station manager Tom Crawford and encouraging people to donate to listener-supported radio during MSE’s most recent pledge drive. So, cheers to you, FM airwaves! (Not so fast, The Hog!) Here’s hoping you play even more material from the following artists (and many more) in 2009:
1. The Celebrated Workingman: HERALD THE DICKENS
If you made it through the main best-of list, you already know how much I love this album. But it is the best album to come out of Milwaukee, so how could I not include it again?
2. IfIHadAHifi: FAME BY PROXY
Opening with a fuzzed out, caffeinated Melvinsish riff, “Defenestrate Me” exemplifies IfIHadAhHfi’s peculiar brand of fun anger. “Paradise By The Paulding Light” gets downright droney and hypnotic, but the attitude is still pure lighthearted scoffery all the same. “Black Holes Resonate (In B-Flat), Baby” screams with some truly Beefheart-esque guitar, and as they chant “This spaceship’s falling apart”, it feels like it is, but they bring the song back from the brink to an amazing ending. “Get Killed, Get Noticed” is so anthemic it’s practically pop, but a little too abrasive and way too weird. These are two of the coolest songs I’ve heard all year. The final two tracks are almost like one piece; it’s an intoxicating, inspired 12 minutes of music. There’s not a misstep on the whole album. It’s 100% freaky loudness, pretty accessible for noise-rock but still waaaay out there.
3. Collections Of Colonies Of Bees: BIRDS
This is genuine headphone material: not your ordinary post rock, yet certainly not discernibly connected to the band’s bluegrass origins. Birds is an alternately ambient and noisy album that manages to strike a perfect balance between complexity and cohesion. You might get lost for a bit in some of the arrhythmic soundscapes, which sometimes approximate the gradual tuning of an orchestra, but you’ll never get bored. And eventually, a new beat will once again grab you up in its momentum. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the sometimes chaotic, sometimes majestic movements of birds as a backdrop to this lush, layered album.
4. The Scarring Party: COME AWAY FROM THE LIGHT
The amazing thing is how these peculiar songs end up greeting your ears like treasured pop songs once you get them embedded in your memory. This band is one of the Brew City’s greatest treasures, sure to entertain even those who won’t know what the hell to think. Archaic jazz-folk, upbeat but insistently creepy, immaculately arranged and performed, perfectly suited for all your black-and-white b-horror fairy tales.
5. Elusive Parallelograms: AND EVERYTHING CHANGES
Another quirky album filled with seductive memory-burn songs. They are catchy, they are short, and the in-your-face production makes them impossible to resist. A psychedelic flourish here (“Belochromatic”), an acoustic ditty there (“Coagulated Conduit”), and a whole lot of punked-out pop songs that make this album fly by. The most ambitious tune, “Intelligent Design”, feels epic at four minutes, but it incorporates all the elements of the album into a very satisfying come-down.
6. Canyons Of Static: THE DISAPPEARANCE
The only thing Canyons Of Static do differently than most of the Mogwai clones flooding the indie rock shores is write actual melodies, and it makes all the difference. These songs never dwell too long on the same theme, so even though they are expansive, they keep it moving along. They don’t go for the throat with abrasive riffs or walls of noise. They just play with emotion and write music that gives you that rush all by itself. All in all, if you think you’ve heard as much organic post rock as you can handle, this band will change your mind.
7. Quinn Scharber And The …: BEING NICE WON’T SAVE MILWAUKEE
The band name may be different at every show, but you can always count on quality tunes played with skill, as displayed on this debut. The oddly-mixed “Addiction & Subtraction” breaks up a killer string of perfectly crafted rock songs, an odd placement and the weak point of the album, but it’s surrounded by two of the best local songs released this year, “She Will” and “Midwest Blues”. The album conjures elements of Elliott Smith, but more electric and not quite so desperate. Scharber isn’t necessarily being nice, but he is proving that you don’t have to have a gimmick to make a name for yourself in this town. Okay, there is the band name, but still…
8. The Championship: MIDNIGHT GOLDEN
For its second album, The Championship ditches the “alt” for unadorned, beer-soaked country. Joe Crockett’s Springsteen mumble/croon will make you feel for the lost-soul protagonists of his songs. It’s an album that spit-shines the romance of a lonely, bar-hopping life, yet convincingly yearns for something greater.
9. The .357 String Band: FIRE & HAIL
Let’s face it: most bluegrass bands are interchangeable. This band doesn’t just have the benefit of the punk fashion sense to make it noticeable. It also has the attitude (especially Joe Huber—he’s got that punk rock stare down), and these guys can play fast. The harmonies are tight, but the vocals retain an anarchic sheen. As you might expect from Hank III’s buddies, there are songs about drinkin’ an’ fightin’, but these guys really shine with their rendition of the traditional “Cluck ‘Ol Hen”, a display of all the speed and agility they let fly, and fun as hell.
10. John The Savage: KITCHEN VOODOO
You never quite know what you’ll get when this band plays, and since this album was basically recorded live, you’re only getting one facet of the band, not really the gist. Live as on the album, they are inconsistent, but the highs always make up for the lows. I was first turned onto a heavier, somewhat more psychotic version than the one on this album, more rockabilly and less jazz, but these elements, along with carnival music, blues, tropical flourishes, folk, whatever, they’re all here to some extent. And it’s not nearly as unfocused as you might think. Its main selling point is that it’s interesting, over and over again; it’s like Tom Waits is on tour with the Meteors and their bus collides with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
This album was technically from 2007, but when I bought it, singer Jay Reimer told me it was from “this year”, and besides, I didn’t do a Milwaukee top ten last year and this album deserves mention. Yes, the accusations of “neo-grunge” are fair, but all that designation serves to illustrate is that straight-up rock music has sucked since the mid-90’s, and in the wake of nu-metal, emo/pop-punk and Coldplay, this album sounds positively refreshing.
Decibully: WORLD TRAVELS FAST
This album was finished in 2008, and some people were even lucky enough to hear it in 2008 (via The Onion’s website—still up as of today), but since Decibully was dropped by its label, it couldn’t get released in 2008. Just in case it never does (heaven forbid), I just have to say right now that it’s brilliant. If it does get released, be surprised if you don’t see it on this list next year. Catch the band live to hear a lot of the songs on it, probably sounding even better than on the album because Decibully’s songs usually do.
PROMISING SIGN THAT 2009 IS GOING TO KICK ASS
Once a week (Thursday), Milwaukee radio godfather Bob Reitman relieves the unbearable AOR boredom usually unleashed by 89.7 from 7-9 p.m. with his new show, “It’s Alright Ma, It’s Only Music”. Don’t expect to hear any death metal, but other than that, nothing is off limits as Reitman pores through a century of popular and not-so-popular music, exposing us all to his vast knowledge and obvious love of the songs and of putting together playlists. Anyone who listens regularly will know that Reitman has a fondness for cover versions, and his love of Dylan should be a no-brainer. So it was perfect that, for the first “Ma” of 2009, he busted out the little-known Nob Dylan and his Nobsoletes, spliced in with the Bob originals, for almost a half hour to kick off the show. Nob is actually the slightly-better-known Rev. Nørb of sorely-missed Green Bay punks Boris The Sprinkler, and anything that gets people interested in Nørb means a slightly better chance he’ll put out more music; his first solo album was pretty bad, but his last, 2002’s Earth’s Greatest Rocker, was only awesomely bad. Reitman even played some Call Me Lightning from the best Milwaukee disc of ’07, Meet The Skeletons, later on in the show. If it’s too loud, you’re too old, indeed!