An EP-launch celebration from Son!, the daring of "Desert Hearts," romantic post-punk from Natural Velvet, and more events of note in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Reid Kurkerewicz, Katie Richards, and Henry Solo
Sponsor message: The weekly Tone Madison calendar is made possible with support from Union Cab of Madison, a worker-owned cooperative providing safe and professional taxi services.
FRIDAY MARCH 16
Montréal's enigmatic and pioneering post-rockers, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, led by guitarist Efrim Manuel Menuck, rose to prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s with a series of seminal releases on Kranky and Constellation, including 2000's ecstatic double LP Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven! That influential record is often critically hailed as one of the most innovative and emulated of past two decades, thanks to its gorgeous dynamic range, and moody, moving interplay of field recordings and electric guitar ambiance. "Sleep," and in truth, the entire record, is the exemplary sound of the rock band composing as a symphony orchestra, with the intent of evoking the cinematic experience purely through transcendent audio landscapes.
After an unexpected hiatus in mid-late aughts, Godspeed returned in 2012 with another exclamatory, satiating holdover, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! Since then, the band has written new material sans spoken word passages for two more modestly paced records, like the ambient-leaning Asunder, Sweet And Other Distress (2015) and last year's Luciferian Towers. Its opener, "Undoing a Luciferian Towers," may not seek to upturn the formula the band established so prominently 20 years ago, but it feels bolder and more immediate in its droning tremolos, hypnotic bass pulse, and intense but graceful crescendo shaped by the embellishment of guests Craig Pederson (trumpet) and Bonnie Kane (saxophone, flute) in the latter half.
At this sold-out show with opening drone act KGD (Kevin Doria of Growing), expect the band to use apocalyptic poetry through video projection, steadily thunderous volume, and perhaps a few instrumental segues from Efrim's newly released solo record, Pissing Stars. —Grant Phipps
This month, New Jersey indie-punk band Titus Andronicus embark on their first acoustic tour following the release of their fifth LP, A Productive Cough. On this tour, singer-songwriter, frontman and mastermind, Patrick Stickles, is not bringing along current bandmates Liam Betson, R.J. Gordon, and Chris Wilson. Instead, this version of Titus Andronicus is going for a more intimate feel, featuring only Stickles and pianist Alex Molini performing as a duo.
Before the actual album, Titus Andronicus released A Productive Cough: The Documentary, an hour-long making-of film by Ray Concepcion. In the film, Stickles describes A Productive Cough as a "ballad record." Though this might seem like an unexpected deviation from the band's previous work, Springsteen-esque ballads like "To Old Friends And New," from 2010's The Monitor, are scattered throughout their otherwise brash and explosive discography. In this album, Stickles claims that he wanted to "put the communication first," hence its departure from punk rock aggression and volume. Stickles still foregrounds his rough and raw vocals, but this time is joined by a collective of vocalists and plays up a swaying, sing-along feel. Stickles brought on 21 musicians to collaborate on this album, which gives it an expansive sound and spirit.
On this seven-track record, Stickles pays homage to Bob Dylan with politically and socially informed lyrics. He even goes as far as covering Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone," but rewritten in the first person as "(I'm) Like A Rolling Stone." The first single released, "Number One (In New York)" expresses a painful distaste for the mistakes we make personally and collectively, especially in regard to our current president. Likewise, the bluesy rock-gospel "Real Talk" harps on the looming danger that defines the Trump era. Every verse starts with Stickles singing alone before his gang of vocalists chimes in amongst trumpet flourishes. A raw, personal meditation on the world as Stickles sees it, A Productive Cough combats despair with community and revelry. —Katie Richards
Baltimore band Natural Velvet can certainly navigate the more jagged and austere reaches of post-punk, but even the most abrasive songs on the band's 2017 Mirror To Make You feel cathartic and lush. Bassist Corynne Ostermann's lead vocals deftly tie together the band's menace and tenderness. On album opener "It's All Mine," Ostermann growls and cackles over guitarists Kim Te and Spike Arreaga's frenzied noise-rock scrawls. Tracks like "Crowning" restrain the band's furious energy, just a bit, to let Ostermann and drummer Greg Hatem build up atmosphere and suspense. The album closes with "Emblemata," which balances dissonance and beautiful.
It's interesting to hear how a bunch of different influences converge in Natural Velvet's music, and in ways that vary from song to song—Joy Division and Siouxsie And The Banshees are pretty obvious ones, there's certainly a bit of DC post-hardcore, and there's a place in my heart for any band that covers Lungfish. But the band's songwriting and stormy dynamics stand on their own, and Natural Velvet conjure up a distinctive, intoxicating blend of romance and fiery filth. They share the bill here with Madison garage-punk thrashers Fire Heads and with Heather The Jerk, the charming solo outfit of The Hussy and Proud Parents drummer/vocalist Heather Sawyer. —Scott Gordon
Milwaukee native Bizness Boi, real name Andre Robertson, is an emerging figure in the realm of producers, like Metro Boomin and Ronny J, who have achieved independent success by working with a variety of artists (mostly in RnB), rather than as a part of any one artist’s team or crew. Robertson’s discography is extensive, with nearly 100 tracks on his Soundcloud and has worked with the likes of Quavo, PARTYNEXTDOOR, 6lack and (unfortunately) Chris Brown. Presumably, at this seminar, hosted by Intellectual Ratchet and moderated by Capital Times journalist Amber Walker, Robertson will impart upon attendees whatever wisdom or practices allowed him to attain success in a cutthroat music industry. There will also be snacks and drinks included with the price of admission and a chance to talk with Bizness Boi himself following the presentation. —Henry Solo
SATURDAY MARCH 17
Donna Deitch's 1985 film Desert Hearts is set in 1959, when Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a nervous Columbia University literature professor travelling to Reno to get a divorce from her husband, instead strikes up a flirtation with the free-spirited casino worker Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). The film's exploration of sexual politics and use of Reno to re-work the Western as a landscape for romantic drama made Desert Hearts a cult classic, especially as positive portrayals of lesbians were rare even for art-house films—and, in the 1980's mainstream, non-existent.
Before this queer-romance was released, the films' stars were told it would ruin their careers. Initial mixed reviews panned the plot as unbelievable and lifeless, while Deitch had to shoulder a lot of the promotional work for the film herself. Over time, though, Desert Hearts has been vindicated. It was awarded a spot in the much coveted Criterion Collection in 2017, inspiring new appreciation for how it used at-the-time radical sexual politics to uncover the difficulties and traumas of individuals coming to terms with their environment.
Reno and "the West" are often thought of as a places of moral ambiguity, and citizens of the mythical West are expected take the law into their own hands—except when it comes to their sexual preferences. The hypocrisy of this shotgun morality is starkly highlighted in Desert Hearts as events slowly yet dramatically unravel. Even today, one doesn't have to imagine scenarios like a mother figure disowning someone she once treated like a daughter for being queer, or the necessity of a cross-country escape from a bad marriage. After 15 years, Desert Hearts holds up as a work of vital and beautiful storytelling. —Reid Kurkerewicz
SUNDAY MARCH 18
Alain Tanner's 1976 comedy Jonah Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000, screening here as part of a series on the Swiss filmmaker's radical work, has a rapidly evolving plot following Swiss citizens living or working in Geneva amid a recession that lowered wages and ramped up inflation that followed from widespread civil unrest in 1968. Workers have adapted to the economic conditions accordingly: a laid-off printer becomes a farmhand and discovers he loves the work, a history teacher lectures on the inevitability of capitalistic collapse to his eager students, and a grocery store clerk steals food for her retired friend. The title itself expresses the sense that the movie and its citizens are solving an equation with a given event and unknown variables, which, the audience realizes with some mental math, is the birth of Jonah, who provides hope as a human as yet unaffected by history or culture.
A rousing speech given by the history teacher, utilizing sexual innuendo as he describes time as a long string of sausage, explains much of the film. He argues that people trapped in cycles of history are necessarily blind to their own place in reality, as the passage of time twists away from their perception. So, he brings in his acquaintances to explain to the class first-hand their own predicaments, like his lover, the grocery-clerk, who is forced to live in France to avoid high taxes and explains to the kids that she doesn't like her job. As the eight deeply fleshed-out characters meet, collaborate, and make love through a dense web of personal connections, Tanner draws out humor from absurdity and everyday conversations, between both strangers, optimistic youth, and loved ones. In its non-traditional plot structure, Jonah is a tedious film—but in the same way life is tedious. And in the way life is worth living, Jonah is worth watching. —Reid Kurkerewicz
Theodore Collatos' 2017 film Tormenting The Hen is a stunning combination of stalker horror, political critique, and romantic drama. The plot centers around Claire (Dameka Hayes), a playwright whose two-man play puts a Jewish man and a black man in conversation about their oppression, and her partner Monica (Carolina Monnerat), a Brazilian environmental engineer who studies trees, as the couple go off to stay at a remote artist retreat. When Mutty (Matthew Shaw), an Iraq War veteran with PTSD and autism who takes care of the grounds, reveals that the house they're renting used to be a chicken coop, the audience quickly realizes who the titular hens are. The scenes in which Claire politely (for a while) battles her actors as the two men try to impose themselves on her script are compelling for the anger just barely concealed beneath her face. Meanwhile, Monica is harassed by Mutty, who mows the lawn incessantly. These conflicts intertwine with the couple's own relationship issues to set up the collapse of this isolated world.
Almost the entire film is shot in beautifully rendered close-ups, showing these fully characterized humans in all their awkward glory. The movie is constantly commenting on itself, both visually and in its dialogue. If in one scene there is an aggressive fight, in the next, there are bruises. With its chaotic end, Tormenting The Hen is a series of personal and sociological failings set in test tube-like isolation, as we watch the individuals confront sociological others, and find themselves become othered. While the film doesn't rely on cliches, we are still given a sense of international issues that bear down personally on the way people live their everyday lives. —Reid Kurkerewicz
TUESDAY MARCH 20
Musician Daniel Kaplan has done a lot of morphing and experimenting since he came to Madison as part of UW-Madison's First Wave program. First known to local audiences for his brash but at times vulnerable work under the MC name Lord Of The Fly, Kaplan has increasingly stretched between hip-hop and other musical interests, rapping and singing in the exuberant R&B ensemble ME eN YOU, teaching himself piano on a Fender Rhodes that's become his constant companion, and playing behind other artists, including fellow First Waver Hiwot Adilow. His solo project Son! has released a handful of singles over the past couple of years that explored restless and uneasy territory between hip-hop and tender pop songwriting, an effort that began to cohere with the bittersweet chorus of last fall's "Dog."
At this show, Kaplan will celebrate Son!'s debut EP, Emotional Robots, a set of six new songs that, like the project's previous work, collide electronic production techniques with his ever-shifting vocal approach, and instrumentation that includes the Rhodes, buzzy-bright electric-guitar figures, and saxophone. Tracks like "Orangeade" and "Stank" function both as tightly built pop songs and playful, funky arenas for a lot of different ideas and melodic fragments to bounce around. The first single released from the EP, "What's Good," showcases the sweetness that comes through in Kaplan's more reflective movements, pairing Kaplan's wounded, up-front vocal melodies with an airy and expansive guest vocal from Slow Pulp's Emily Massey. There are still elements of hip-hop here, and Kaplan raps a bit when it serves the song overall, as in the flirtatious first verse of "Beer." Overall, Emotional Robots finds Kaplan's vision becoming a little more clear, but no less complex, and that yields an emotional payoff that's both immediate and filled with a swirl of conflicting feelings. The EP isn't officially out until April, but attendees at this show will be able to grab some early copies. —Scott Gordon