Judging from the abundant number of summertime releases by Madison-area musicians, very few local players are worried about the slumping market for recorded music. Here at Isthmus, we've received a dozen new CDs by local acts over the course of August, a month that usually sees half the city's population take off on vacation.
Then again, with CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon and MySpace exposing would-be consumers to tens of thousands of tiny, limited-edition independent releases, it really doesn't make sense to "wait until the students come back" before you play shows and push new product. Especially when your CD, vinyl or digital-only offering is meant to be competitive with all those other thousands of limited releases by artists from Los Angeles, London and Lahore. 'Cause frankly, global entertainment centers are going 24-7 these days.
To be honest, not every summertime release reviewed here is a masterwork. But at least local artists are willing to compete in every season. I mean, sure it's fun to puff doobies on the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River all summer, but professional musicians understand that they're in a year-round business.
Speaking of the devil's weed, rock-reggae hybrid the Takebacks are one of very few dub-wise acts that don't sound like they hit pause a couple times each band practice for a bong break.
At points, their crafty new CD Call Collect Ask for...The Takebacks bares the influence of melodica master Augustus Pablo, but these aren't your run-of-the-mill skank mavens. They're adept at the kind of oblique, punky rocking that dominated New York's downtown scene of the late '70s and early '80s, and when they fuse the two disparate forms on urgent, propulsive cuts like "X-ray Vision" and their dubby expression of geopolitical anxiety, "Fake Wars," the results are startling.
Iowa produced one of the country's great folk/ roots singer-songwriters in Greg Brown, and folks like Blake Thomas and Josh Harty are proving that Wisconsin can develop the same kind of talent. Harty's originally from Fargo, N.D., but he's been a Madison staple for years, and if the right people hear his new, country-leaning CD A Long List of Lies, he could have a lot of success building a conduit between Badgerland and Nashville. Portentous cuts like the bluesy, windblown "Long Time Coming Down" and the steady-rolling love cry "You and I" have a timeless quality about them that's certain to hook hard country and casual Americana fans alike.
Harty doesn't just have a knack for writing poignant country-folk, though. He also possesses an aching baritone voice that has a way of cutting beyond all artifice. He never forces a line with it, never adds that showy, aw-shucks twang so many Nashville stars use to cement their down-home credentials. With Harty, what you get is a quiet passion that makes every word seem honest and true. Needless to say, in country-folk that's a gift worth having.
Bazar, from longtime cabaret rockers Lorenzo's Music, is a surreal sonic safari that finds leaders Tom Ray and Mark Whitcomb fiddling about with both discombobulated pop tunes and slew-footed R&B-inflected rockers that owe a lot to everyone's favorite ash can saint, Tom Waits. The CD's bass-heavy lead cut, "Old Old Story," has a bittersweet swagger about it that ought to appeal to both Waits fans and the legions of folks who were thrilled by Leonard Cohen's mid-life move into contemporary cabaret fare.
The same is true of the louche rumba "All's Good That Ends Well." As always, Lorenzo's stylish, gravel-voiced singer Ray is in complete control of his striking pipes as he dips and sways through a fractured musical landscape peopled by beautiful losers, tempestuous lovers and twisted back-alley creatures who look good even when they're falling hard.
The CD's packaging may be simple, but don't let that fool you. These guys are one of the most sophisticated outfits in the area. If they were based on one of the coasts, they'd be penning soundtracks.
When it comes to jazz, few local players are more skilled and, well, downright brainy than keyboard player Tim Whalen. Sadly, at this point, Whalen's only a part-time summer resident, and when he returns to New York for more musical training in a year or two, he might leave us altogether. For now, however, jazz fans get a chance to revel in the success of his glorious Nonet, a fearless nine-piece that powers up everything from elegiac ballads to boisterous urban mood pieces on Magnus, a sumptuous live disc named after the local restaurant/lounge where it was recorded.
Suckers for Bill Evans' elegant explorations of harmonic colors won't be disappointed by "Waltz for Caroline," an alternately wistful and tripping original composition that features both Whalen's expressive work on piano and his painterly arrangements of brass and woodwinds.
Any thoughts that Whalen and company are simply well-schooled devotees of Oliver Nelson, Charles Mingus, Tad Dameron and the other giants of modern-jazz ensemble work are put to rest by the epic tone poem "Long Walk," which finds Whalen sketching out an adventurous ramble that keeps returning to an aggressive ostinato laid down by both upright player Nick Moran and Whalen's own muscular left hand. Trumpeter Dave Cooper's solo on the tune is bracing as well.
For pure, goose-flesh-raising profundity there's Whalen's arrangement of John Coltrane's "Alabama," a masterful free-meets-Afro-jazz masterpiece that bores directly into the troubled heart of the violent, racially bifurcated nation that birthed it.
In need of some comic relief? Cribshitter give it to you in spades on Cry a Little Rainbow, a 30-track exercise in Zappa-esque humor that reaches a sort of weird-ass apogee as the foursome dig into an instructional dance tune that explains to both "ladies" and "fellas" precisely how and when to eat shit.
A woozy, Looney Tunes-quality reworking of John Waite's syrupy post-break pop hit "Missing You" is nearly as fabulously fucked up, and a tuba-powered, Spanish-language version of John Lennon's ultra-earnest "Oh Yoko!" is just plain strange. Then there's a potty-mouthed funk jape called "I Got Hot Sauce (In My Pussy)" that showcases some Buckethead-worthy guitar shredding by lead shitter Diaper Daniels.
Sounds like a little too much? Well, if you try to digest all 30 tracks in one sitting, it is. But if you savor Cribshitter's multiplicity of one-liners over the course of several lazy, beer-drenched afternoons, a parti-colored shitstorm of deep guffaws and gentle, knowing sniggers is unavoidable.