Milwaukee's Best 2010

Wed Dec 15 2010

After a 2009 lull, the Brew City stormed back this year with an astounding array of incredible records.  I decided I couldn’t extricate myself from my hometown bias, because I would put Milwaukee’s top ten records up against the rest of the world’s top ten without hesitation this year.  Credit local überproducer Shane Hochstetler in large part: he produced or co-produced six of the albums on this list and many more at his Howl Street Recordings, the new Midwestern music Mecca.  And wouldn't you know it?  His next door neighbor at Mystery Room Mastering and Recording, Justin Carl Perkins, had a hand in at least four of 'em as well.  And with the onslaught of online free/pay-what-you-want downloads (thanks, Radiohead!!), y’all have no excuse for not checking out at least half of this music (note: if the album title contains a link, it should take you to a download page).

As the consumer paradigm continues to shift away from albums, the line between LP and EP is beginning to blur, so I’m lumping them all together here.  A cohesive and moving collection of five tunes can be just as powerful a statement as an hour-long treatise, and it’s kind of the year of the EP in Milwaukee anyway.  And with the rest of the world going all 80s retro this year, MKE seems to be taking its cues from much further back in time (warning: three different Buddy Holly mentions.  Unavoidable), but making sounds uniquely modern.  This is one of those lists where I feel bad for all the records that aren’t number one, ‘cause they’re all so damn good.  Enjoy.

10. The Sugar Stems: Sweet Sounds Of The… (Dusty Medical)

I'm still trying to figure out the "stems" part of Sugar Stems, but I get the "sugar".  In the end, it's probably stupid to over-analyze; stick it in your ear, and you'll experience an irresistible sweetness coupled with an inability to keep your toes from tapping.  "If You Want Me To" and "Make You Love Me" are the two catchiest melodies I've heard in 2010, and that's saying a lot.

Women have a tougher time than men finding a distinctive voice--not Betsy Borst, though.  Screw the hordes of Björk/Tori/Ani clones; Borst has a near-classic bubblegum charm without a hint of contrivance, and that’s precisely the style that will sell these pulp-45 nuggets.  Clean, jangly punk-pop with the occasional rockabilly/country flair, heart-achy but sprightly and resilient; Buddy Holly’s perfect mate has emerged at long last.  Instantly whistleable melodies, not groundbreaking by any means but they are their own species.  Possibly even timeless.

You can give Drew Fredrichsen a lot of credit too.  He's a choice harmonious match for Borst, almost eerily at times, and he knows when to make his guitar talk and when to let it stroll and when to just hammer it out.  The retro-reverb treatment is ideal for these songs, and it's so easy to just swim in the waves of sound.  Your brain won't want to investigate the occasional anomaly (such as the uncharacteristically haunting moans atop a Social-D clang-twang in "Little Girl") for fear of losing the narcotic hook, but don't worry: nothing can sabotage the lollipop goodness.  Note: they're even sweeter live.


9. Kings Go Forth: The Outsiders Are Back (Luaka Bop)

No real attempt at being modern, Kings Go Forth rode the retro craze harder than most, but took it back farther than most as well, crafting a powerfully groovy soul dance party that sounds like a lost early 70s classic.  The ten(ish)-member collective is probably the least likely success story of the year based on the typical nuthin-fancy Brew City aesthetic, but The Outsiders Are Back got picked up by David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label and the rest was history.  The awesome part is that this record deserves every bit of the praise it’s garnered.

The best way to avoid being decried as unoriginal is to not even take a stab at it.  Lucky for KGF, this kind of music has never really gone out of style; it’s guaranteed to get booties shakin’ regardless of what year it is, as long as it’s done right.  Brilliant horn arrangements that never get in the way of head-spinning kinetic rhythm and inspired vocal gymnastics: that’s how you do it.

You could argue, I suppose, that the multi-part percussion whirlwind that propels this album evolves it a bit past the minimalistic grooves of the 70s, and that the multicultural flourishes make it a bit more rich and sonically advanced than the majority of what was going on during the barely-integrated genesis of soul, but that is all beside the point. Call it an organic counterpart to Girl Talk: the true originality of it may only exist in two dimensions, but as long as the heart that went into it shines through, it will keep heads bobbin’ and spirits high.


8. The Fatty Acids: Stop Berries, Berries And Berries Berries (Kribber Krown)

The Fatty Acids are all over Milwaukee radio (the two stations that matter, anyway) for good reason: they’re one of those bands that make you go ‘I know of at least ten bands making music just like this that are famous; why not these guys?’  There’s somewhat of a prog element to this stuff, but it’s basically indie pop with a bunch of appendages, and after a couple listens you can finally stop hearing the songs on the radio and trying to figure out what more-famous band this is that you can’t quite remember.

“Hiroshima” (hands down, one of the best songs of 2010) contains two of the most maddeningly catchy hooks of the year, and “Astrovan” is another instant earworm with a hint of 70s FM gold in the vocal harmonies, but they’re both just out of easy reach as a whole.  The album relies equally on guitar, bargain-bin synth and slightly off-kilter vocal harmonies, reminiscent of a disheveled Vampire Weekend but without the pseudo-exotic flourishes.

A perfectly self-aware capper to this album is its hidden track: a cover of all-but-forgotten Lou Christie’s 1966 hit, “Lightning Strikes” (that one song that sounds like Frankie Valli but isn’t).  Like the whole album, it’s a shamelessly faithful but confoundingly caustic take on ear candy--even though it might bug the crap out of you at first, you’re kind of excited to hear it again.


7. Jaill: That’s How We Burn (Sub Pop)

Jaill plays unassailable pop nuggets with a strong punk antecedent and perfectly-timed psychedelic flourishes on occasion.  What’s not to like?  The best part is that they don’t really sound like any other band, thanks in large part to Vincent Kircher’s singing, and if you say you don’t like his voice, I guess I can sorta see it, but I still say give it some more time to grow on you.  Personally, I dig it.

When folks talk about “stoner rock”, I know this isn’t what they’re referring to, but the stuff on That’s How We Burn suits the term better than Sabbath-worshipping quasi-metal, I swear, and not just because of the occasional weed euphemism in the lyrics.  You know it’s a buried memory of listening to Beatles ’65 baked out of his gourd that inspired the band to write “Summer Mess”, one of the record’s highlights.

Also among the best tracks: the most uneasy groove of any song ever called “She’s My Baby” for sure.  And “Demon”, another slightly delirious trot that makes you take a sudden relieved breath when it ends abruptly without falling apart.  And the ultra-satisfying album-ending title track, one of those occasional tunes Buddy Holly would hear and smile and be happy that his inventions still echo harmoniously almost 60 years later.

Aw, to hell with it: all the tracks on here are highlights.  Tight, solid craftsmanship and execution, memorable and just weird enough so you never get sick of ‘em.  Sub Pop contract: richly deserved.


6. Sat. Nite Duets: One Nite Only (self-released)

It’s a different kind of party album; a screeching chorus yell/sings “We’ll be here all nite long!” but sadly, this record barely makes it past fifteen minutes.  In that time, however, you get the giddy feeling that Milwaukee has its own nascent Modest Mouse surrogate, only a lot more fun (and possibly more drunk) as we Brew City folk are known to be.

WHOA, for a second there, I could’ve sworn it was Mark Lanegan singing this first tune!  But the resemblance only lasts a couple lines.  “The Sweltering Summer” accesses the ramshackle minimalism of Violent Femmes on a rant.  “Funeral On 6th Street”, he sounds JUST like Warren Zevon.  And…

Hold on, I’m whipping out references as fast as the songs go by, but to keep on like this might make the review longer than the EP, so I’ll just say that these guys have every ingredient they need for a carrot cake of national recognition.  Expect big things if they don’t burn out.


5. Drugs Dragons: Drugs Dragons (Dusty Medical)

The very beginning of this album is sort of a warning: if this kind of sloppy, caustic racket doesn’t do it for you, consider yourself scared off.  In fact, the beginning of damn near every song on the album sounds like inept middle schoolers fresh off their third night of rehearsal. Drugs Dragons don’t do mellow; drummer Eric seriously can’t keep a steady slow beat.  But by the middle of the song, it all comes together in a rush of adrenalized drool, smack in the heart of punk the way it’s supposed to be.

I know there must be other bands out there playing music like this somewhere; maybe I’m just too old to be trusted by that underground any more, so I don’t know where to find it.  I just feel like I’ve been waiting for at least a decade for shit like this to come along again, and it sounds fresh as anything in the world.  Song titles like “Chuds In Love” and “Graveyard Whiskey” say almost everything you need to know about this band, but if you really want more, the singer’s name is Puke and the album is dedicated to blah, blah, blah.

It’s basically like Flipper and The Queers got together for a drunken jam on garage rock from the 50s and Ramones covers (yeah, “Cobwebs” sounds an awful lot like “Beat On The Brat”; punk rock is about solidarity).  You’ll be transported to a sweat-and-vomit-soaked underage club with four bucks in one pocket and a can of Beast in the other, ready to run for the backstage exit if the cops show up.  In other words, having the time of your life.


4. The Scarring Party: Losing Teeth (self-released)

In most cases, lyrics are a secondary concern in modern music.  That’s what sets The Scarring Party apart from most of modern musicdom.  That, and a style of music nothing like any other band on the planet, at least in this century.  “Modern” is probably not the first descriptor that comes to mind, but this isn’t just a nostalgic tribute to archaic forms; it’s vibrant and sometimes chilling, and it’s evolving.

Losing Teeth, predictably, has the richest sound of any Scarring Party release yet (courtesy of Shane Hochstettler, natch), but what it may lack in the visceral menace of fan-faves like “Eye” and “No More Room”, frontman Daniel Anthony Bullock makes up for with his best batch of verses yet.  Seriously: “I toss antacids to the squawking gulls when I picnic at the beach/And when Sunday mass lets out, I throw stones at the elderly” is just one of the many gems from “Mean”, and most of the album’s lyrics are more sophisticated and at least as creepy (I just particularly love that nugget).

Although there’s little stylistic resemblance, there’s a bit of a Beefheart motif at work here: you get drawn in initially by the pure weirdness, but you stay for the hidden depths of meaning and creativity.  But the key aspect of Losing Teeth for me is that the music utterly transcends the early-20th-century jazz/folk that inspired the band to be a band, and we’re into uncharted territory now.  The climactic swells of “Cut” and “Step Inside” are pure 2010, and songs like “Raymond Dogboy” and “Last Night At The Bacchanal” are possessed by a weirdly swaying groove that couldn’t have been conceived in the distant past.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this band is a Brew City treasure.


3. The Goodnight Loving: The Goodnight Loving Supper Club (Dirtnap)

I was listening to WMSE recently and The Goodnight Loving’s “Candy Store” came on during the Local Lunchbox.  I guess I’d never given that song enough individual consideration.  Perfectly subversive pop--with its false buoyancy and creepy, disillusioned outro, it suddenly became my new favorite song from this album.  When that can still happen after several months of regular listening, you’ve got yourself a winner.

“Ain’t It Weird” sets a down-homey tone, infectious and, well, it does get weird at the end.  And thus begins the great brewtown twangy rock adventure that is The Goodnight Loving Supper Club: clever but often sentimental lyrics hobnobbing with billy-rockin’ guitars and pop-punk vocal harmonies and an overdose of reverb, all tight and delirious and over too damn soon.

You just don’t hear power pop perfection as awesome as “Doesn’t Shake Me” and “In The Pan” very often, and it’s impossible not to invoke Buddy Holly when you talk about these tunes.  There’s none of the desperate urgency of Holly, but his irresistibility is all there, and maybe a little of the hopeless romanticism as well.

Hand in hand with all the rockabilly goes a dollop of surf rock.  “Deep Black Pool” is a haunted little grandchild of some old Link Wray tune, and “Into A Grape” is kind of a lyrical reimagining of Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. But the moody western two-step of “It’s A Long Way In A Bad Way” and “Bike + Stick” might be my favorite GNL guise; bittersweetness takes its toll on most of this album, but these are the most touching tunes to me, earnest heartache brought out by authentic tunesmiths who channel the past into songs that might be around forever.


2. Eric & Magill: All Those I Know (self-released)

This record starts off with a straightforward picked acoustic guitar and subdued ghostly moans, reminiscent of Grizzly Bear in simpler times.  The martial snare kicks in and the music begins to swell, and when Decibully’s Ryan Weber begins singing “I’m stranded” over and over, I get chills almost exactly like when Ben Gibbard sings “I need you so much closer”.  That’s a very good thing.

There’s no pigeonholing these guys, either.  Along with plenty of folk-based material, there’s that ubiquitous 2010 fuzzy dreampop (“You Make It So Good”, “Grandpa’s Pink Wine”), breezy, minimal FM tuneage (“Gentle, Polite”), and when they want to evoke an aggressive urgency, they can do it (“I Hear Trumpets”).  Credit a massive host of guests for a degree of eclecticism (the Shepherd Express did a nice piece on the project).

But more than anything else, it’s the way the succinct lyrics fit each musical situation perfectly.  The rest of the chorus to “Should We All Wake Up” goes “With nothing but our love/That should be enough”, and it comes across as a plea we should all heed.  The choral chanting of “woe is me” in “Vegetable Gardeners” is heartfelt.  Even the autotuneage in “I Hear Trumpets” sounds like a fresh variation on something that’s otherwise hopelessly driven into the ground.  The term “haunting” is probably overused by us dancers about architecture, but it applies so often on this album.  It’s a rarity, at least for me: it wows you on first listen, and then it keeps getting better.


1. Call Me Lightning: When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free (Dusty Medical)

It’s one thing to name your band after a Who song.  It’s another thing to gradually grow into that name over the course of three albums, even if you are called to do so by your name alone.  No American band has ever reveled so gloriously in Whoishness as Call Me Lightning does on When I Am Gone My Blood Will Be Free, yet done so as a natural evolution of its own distinct style.  This is by far the year’s best rock and roll album, anywhere.

It’s a blessing that Nathan Lilley doesn’t write lyrics like Pete Townshend or sing like Roger Daltrey, sure enough.  He sings in a semi-lucid gravelly yelp that evokes the rebellion that was once an intrinsic element of freedom, and he writes lyrics that delve into the consciousness of the individual and the universe, and the music never fails to emerge triumphantly in synch with his defiant victory cries.

But don’t imagine anything as pretentious as that sounds; just sayin’, this is powerful shit.  It’s nine grimy rock anthems that, for ONCE, owe nothing to Bruce Springsteen. And maybe it’s just my sensibilities, but these are some of my favorite lyrics in a long time.  Just one sample, the chorus of “Beyond The Beasts”:

     And if the righteous they say

     That there is nothing at stake

     Who are we to believe in then

     But sinful men

     Who know the way

I love that.  Life and death and freedom, a fiery current running through the whole album, exploding by its end.

It’s hard to choose favorite songs, but as examples of what CML does better than any other band, check out “Beyond The Beasts” or “Old Cactus”: Shane Hochstetler drives a merciless beat with Bonzo-caliber fills, and together with a punishing yet melodic guitar/bass attack, they keep up an insane level of energy for what seems like ages.  Or, check out “The Fog” and “Follow Me” for undeniable pop songs kind of like Tapes ‘N Tapes used to make, uplifting beyond what such filthy music is .  And “Follow Me” also features some positively Chris Squiresque bass work from Kristopher Maedke-Russell, and that’s the highest praise I know of.  But the obvious show-stopper is the finale, “We Never Left”; sorry if this is a cliché, but if you aren’t moved somehow by this song, maybe rock isn’t your thing.

The insistent din and pounding rhythm and barely-contained tension and elation of release is CML’s dominant formula now, and with the endless possible variations within that theme, the band has created a masterpiece.





Burning Sons: “Masquerade” 7-inch (Mystic)

Shit, it’s four songs--that counts as an EP in punk rock, right?  It’s a damn near perfect blast of old school hardcore, just what you’d hope for from a couple Speedfreaks and their cohorts.  (Dan, I swear, I’ll make it to another show in 2011!)

Cedar AV: At Long Last (self-released)

You’ve heard dozens of pop songs with a rain or thunderstorm effect as a bookend, but never like this: At Long Last begins with a full two-minutes-plus of recorded thunderstormage so intense it functions as Mother Nature’s own noise jam, an emotional catharsis before anyone even starts playing an instrument.  Stormy imagery persists throughout this other Decibully side project, which you can’t really discuss without mentioning Postal Service, so maybe it’s just that lack of Postal that makes this a comforting little album to me.  Biggest difference, though, is that these guys need to find a producer with some better ideas; way too many distracting blips and squeaks and hisses that, whether intentional or not, sabotage several germs of good songs that never quite reach fruition.  But whatever you do, get the free download, if only for the first track.

Conrad Plymouth: Conrad Plymouth (Ten Atoms)

This EP is my number eleven; it’s just a bit too short for a top-ten list (sorry).  The next edition of the Midwest Folk Rock Revival damn well better include Conrad Plymouth.  This is a band with its shit together, evoking a three-quarters-empty neighborhood tavern and the bitter but oblivious romanticism thereof as well as anybody.  It takes a particular talent to write a song that makes you yearn against your will for the shitty old days, and Christopher Porterfield has it, and this band is an acoustic E Street.  All four songs are perfection.  So break out the rosemary-infused Everclear and feel them tug at your soul.

Fibonacci Sequence: Numerology (self-released)

I’m not saying all prog is a guilty pleasure, but Numerology might fall under that category for me; I’m a sucker for the stuff, and while this doesn’t break any new ground, it’s played with a dizzying proficiency and doesn’t lack dynamic or passion.  This is a band that could leap onto the national scene immediately based on ability.  The album is full of genuinely uplifting moments, a lot of great twin lead guitar parts reminiscent of Brian May and mellow/metal gearshifts akin to Dream Theater. But possibly the best thing about Fibonacci Sequence is how not-cheesy the keyboards are, most of the time (the scourge of progdom).  The watered-down percussion, on the other hand, could use some work, but I’m hopeful that will be a non-issue when the band starts to play out.

Jay Flash: Know, Alone (self-released)

Jay Flash sounds like a shy guy, and he makes shy-guy music, but this album is a significant cut above all of the other material of his I’ve heard.  He doesn’t just add more instrumentation; he actually achieves a fuller sound without it being busy.  In fact, many songs are still lulling in a way, hypnotic, but they can also feel tense depending on your own mood, particularly the opening track, “The Verdict”.  This is a magical duplicity that’s tough to achieve.  There are a few awkward moments, but they’re kind of endearing when they’re spread so thinly, otherwise nullified by some great songs and that pervasive emotional purgatory.

Juniper Tar: The Howl Street EP (self-released)

If you put this together with the Conrad Plymouth EP listed above, you have a kick-ass nearly-full-length album of pristine Americana.  While the city eagerly awaits this band’s any-day-now followup to 2008’s awesome To The Trees, we’ll make do with this.  It feels like The Band trying to cure a severe emotional hangover with more booze, except not at all sloppy; the key is the soulful harmonies, like The Eagles minus the glamour and cocaine.  The musicianship is equally brilliant. 2011 is gonna be another really good year for MKE music.

Northless: Leaving The Wolves (Halo Of Flies)

This viscous slab of metal is just something to tide us over until the double album Northless is set to release in the very near future, so the underproduction is forgivable.  What’s left is a punishing combination of sludge and doom and what was called hardcore for a decade or so but thankfully not any more.  And then there’s a brilliant melodic breakdown in “Sleepless Era”, a song reminiscent of Isis back when they were the best band in the world.  This bodes well. Milwaukee is overrun by glam and thrash revival bands right now; let’s hope the well-deserved higher profile of Northless prompts a resurgence in the stuff that once branded Milwaukee a haven for metal.

Old Earth: Uncollected Voices, On The Orchard Moan (self-released)

I’m pretty confident this would’ve made my top ten, considering the previous album by this elusive one-man band, last year’s Out the spheres of The Sorrowful Mysteries, was incredible.  But I found out about this one too late, and all the links are dead; there’s no trace to be found of this album or artist except on a handful of hard drives of people lucky enough to have grabbed it when it was available.  Bummer for the rest of us, I’m guessing.

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