Rory Scovel, Jason Isbell, Tarpaulin, Marquee Film Fest, Sage Francis, and more of the best stuff in Madison this week. | By Scott Gordon, Chris Lay, and Joel Shanahan
THURSDAY NOVEMBER 12
There are very few comics out there who are perfectly balancing seemingly improvised silliness and well-crafted material, and Rory Scovel sits right at the top of that list. There’s a total punk rock sense of “what’s going to happen next?!” anarchy to Scovel’s style of humor, but at the same time he always seems to be in total control. We cannot think of a better introduction to Scovel than this 20-minute video of him doing comedy in a hotel lobby almost a decade ago. Madison’s own Ian Erickson hosts.
Jason Isbell began releasing solo albums in 2007 after breaking off from the Drive-By Truckers (who are in town Sunday, as it happens), but a lot of people, us included, agree that he really hit a nerve with his fourth, 2013’s Southeastern and its worthy follow-up, this year’s Something More Than Free. You could attribute that to a lot of things, from Isbell’s getting sober after years of struggling with alcohol to the unpredictable fortunes of the music industry, but all we really know is that both records boast stark, knotty songwriting and unassuming country-derived instrumentation that doesn’t trip that writing up. The characters in Isbell’s songs, like the restless small-town dweller of Free’s “Speed Trap Town” to the barflies of Southeastern’s astonishing, crushing “Elephant,” don’t presume to give us grand lessons about the universe, but do let us in on the moments of clarity they experience amid their vivid struggles. Sometimes the consensus is spot-on, and we’re glad a lot of people are around to appreciate the beautiful work Isbell is doing.
The students at the WUD Film Committee have put together an absurd and over-the-top smorgasbord of indie films that, while thematically all over the place, add up to a tremendous treat for Madison movie nerds. The Marquee Film Festival’s 14-title lineup finds strength in variety, from the critically adored Amy Winehouse doc Amy to the latest from Noah Baumbach’s new film Mistress America, to the batshit-crazy Dude Bro Party Massacre III (the feature film debut from the 5 Second FIlms fellas) to the Austrian body-horror film Goodnight Mommy to the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival standout Tu Dors Nicole. We’re tempted to just camp out at Union South this weekend and catch them all one after another, taking breaks only to eat the horrendous pizza they sell by the slice just one floor down.
The ever playful and format-hacking Madison theater company The Bricks Theatre marks the 10th edition here of its “That’s What She Said” series of storytelling events centering on female performers. This night’s theme, “Head Noise,” asks the storytellers to take on “that sound in our head we want to shake,” whether that’s a nagging emotion or a literal sound like hearing voices or having a song stuck in your head. But unlike your typical storytelling event, this one is more of a pre-cast production, directed by Molly Vanderlin. Telling their stories here will be Jo Chalhoub, Deborah Hearst Derindinger, Miranda Hawk, Nicole Heiman, Rebecca Raether, Karen Saari, Sarah Whelan, and Jessica Witham.
FRIDAY NOVEMBER 13
(Rory Scovel, That’s What She Said: Head Noise, and Marquee Film Fest continue on Friday)
UW Cinematheque celebrates Russian director Sergei Paradjanov here with a new digital restoration of his 1969 film The Color Of Pomegranates. Based on the life of 18th-century Armenian poet Sayat Nova, Pomegranates combines Paradjanov’s experimental tendencies with the pull-out-all-the-stops costuming and production design of a sumptuous period piece. The screening will be followed by a lecture from James Steffen, whose book The Cinema Of Sergei Parajanov was issued by UW Press in 2013.
Madison band Trophy Dad makes bright guitar-pop sounds with a playful and slightly messy bent on its Shirtless Algebra Fridays EP, released this spring. There’s a lot crammed into this scrappy mix, from the charging power-pop of “Trichotillomania” to the swirly tremolo dives of “Into U,” but bassist Abby Sherman’s vocals help to make those songs cohesive and charming. .
SATURDAY NOVEMBER 14
(Rory Scovel and Marquee Film Fest continue on Saturday)
As we’ve reported in a recent story and podcast, two Madison musicians (Gonzo Rongs drummer Tessa Reina de Echeverria and Cash Box Kings drummer/former Smart Studios engineer Mark Haines) are opening up a new all-analog recording studio, Williamson Magnetic Recording Company. On Saturday they’re inviting the community in to check out the space and enjoy some live music in the studio’s live room. The lineup includes Madison trio Tarpaulin, who recently broke in the studio with their debut EP, Homesick, due out soon on local tape label Rare Plant. Tarpaulin makes stark and aching pop, full of regret and unease even when guitarist/vocalist Alejandra Perez (formerly of Automatically Yours) is crafting wry major-key melodies on “Homesick” and “Letter To Emilia.” The night will also feature blues from Milwaukee harmonica player Jim Liban and Chicago-based/Madison-raised guitarist Joel Paterson’s band (with Haines on drums), a solo set from Midwest Beat singer-guitarist Matt Joyce, and new Madison rock outfit Pollinators. The Williamson Magnetic folks have also mentioned the possibility of hosting other shows in the future, so maybe they can help a bit with Madison’s lack of all-ages music spaces.
Madison’s Immigré is a 10-piece band, including members of Tani Diakite’s Afrofunkstars group, that channels Afrobeat (and by extension the many different genres in that heady, funky orbit), so far mostly through covers like Amadou & Mariam’s “Chaffeurs.” But percussionist Paddy Cassidy tells us they’ve begun writing new original material and will be trying some of that out at this show. Here they’ll be sharing the bill with another large-ish Madison band, the hip-hop outfit Fringe Character.
Eric Caldera, best known as the guitarist in Madison instrumental-rock trio El Valiente, has built up his other project, Oedipus Tex, from an acoustic singer-songwriter outing to a more fleshed-out and distinctive band that melds country and scrappy guitar-rock. The evolution started on 2012’s album Borracho Corazon, which he finally followed up this summer with the SIlver Lion EP. On standouts like Silver Lion’s title track, Caldera uses his self-effacing, breathy vocals to bring stark honesty and a bit of wry world-weariness to life’s lonesome and painful moments. Here Oedipus Tex is a featured act at the format-mixing Evening At Maria’s series, and this month’s installment will also boast an art show from the clients at Artworking, a Madison nonprofit that helps out artists with cognitive disabilities. Another local nonprofit, Working Capital for Community Needs, will be on hand to share information about its micro-finance efforts in Latin America.
The UW Cinematheque kicks off its short slate of newly restored films from Agnes Varda, iconoclast of French film, with the two-fer of Jane B. Par Agnes V. and Kung Fu Master! (Le Petit Amour). The two films, both released in 1988, go very much hand in hand. Jane B. Par Agnes V. is a quasi-documentary on Jane Birkin that avoids traditional concrete narratives, recasting the image of its subject through sometimes surreal role-playing as a means of examining her status as a singer, actress, and muse. Kung-Fu Master! (can’t forget that exclamation point), a film whose roots were planted during the filming of Jane B., manages to somehow make a story about a 40-year-old woman who’s hot and bothered for a 14-year-old boy actually charming. This screening, as well as the Varda double-feature scheduled for next week, are not-coincidentally scheduled to coincide with the publication of a new critical study of Varda by UW-Madison’s Kelley Conway, who will be introducing each of the programs in person.
SUNDAY NOVEMBER 15
(Marquee Film Festival continues on Sunday.)
As we’re typing this, the Micro-Wave Cinema event planned for Sunday is still a secret. What will it be? We could wager a guess, but guesses are a fool’s errand. Sure, we looked at a bunch of the films lined up way back when they were announced, but given the vast range and high quality of films this adventurous and low-budget-leaning series has programmed so far, the only thing that we could say for certain is that it’s gonna be something pretty fresh, interesting, and probably worth catching. If it warrants such a secretive level of promotional obfuscation you’ll, at the very least, find out why it was a secret in the first place, right? The currently-mysterious director is scheduled to be in attendance via Skype for a post-film Q&A.
For nearly 20 years, Athens, Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers have been combining ambitious songwriting with an unabashed penchant for southern-fried classic rock. We can only imagine what a ballsy and radical move this Venn-style merging of tendencies felt like when 1998’s Gangstabilly came out, a time when most college-rock nerdlingers (like ourselves) would’ve likely scoffed at the band’s subtle and unpretentious nods to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fast-forward to 2014’s English Oceans and founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are still blazing down the same swampy and wandering pop-rock trail they were with their career-defining long-player Southern Rock Opera. Cooley-penned highlights like galloping and organ-laced “Made Up Of English Oceans” and sugary country-rocker “Primer Coat” rest comfortably amidst a collection of introspective Hood tunes like jangly earworms “Pauline Hawkins” and “When He’s Gone.” We’re not sure whether to thank the eternally determined trudge of Hood and Cooley to only experiment within their very specific framework or the two-inch tape they insist on recording each album onto, but English Oceans is reliably warm entry to the band’s massive discography and we’re stoked to catch it live.
Last year IndiewIre ran a thoughtful piece titled “Why John Hubley Was One of the Best Animators You've Never Heard Of,” and now the collection of shorts that prompted the article—almost an hour and a half of hip, jazz-influenced work by both John and his wife Faith—will finally be making it to the Chazen for this weekend’s “35mm Forever”-themed Sunday screening (courtesy of Artist’s Public Domain). While the films of the Hubleys might appear slightly crude, they take great advantage of the medium’s ability to wring something profound from the caricaturistic nature of animation, slipping enough subversive content past censors this way to that John Hubley eventually get himself blacklisted. If the Hubleys’ visual style looks familiar (see the embedded clip below), it might be because he co-created Mr. Magoo, you’re a subscriber to The Believer, or maybe you’re just a junkie for old timey commercials. Any which way, this is a collection of shorts definitely worth catching while you can.
Seemingly refreshed after a lengthy hiatus following 2010’s (L)ife, Providence, Rhode Island-based slam poet, rapper, and outsider hip-hop veteran Sage Francis clobbered his way back to relevance with last year’s Copper Gone. The album is another ambitious and visceral collection of acrobatic, slanted, and heartfelt hip-hop explorations. As with most records Francis has dropped since his 2002 debut Personal Journals, the beats are beautifully curated and melt right into the rapper’s introspective and surrealistic flow. Doomtree’s Cecil Otter offered a couple serious highlights with a bizarre contorting groove for album-opener “Pressure Cooker” and a moody, unraveling post-rock tinged piece for “Dead Man’s Float.” Also, the Alias-constructed backdrop for “The Set Up,” with its cinematic wash of textured samples, offers the perfect heady counterpoint to Francis’ contemplative musings on striving hard to make things happen for himself, rather than relying too hard on other people to prop him up. We realize that when it comes to subject matter, Francis isn’t really tapping into anything that a thousand other rappers haven’t already plugged into. It’s just the level of care and style he puts into every theme he approaches that simultaneously pulls us in and pushes himself away from his contemporaries on labels like Minneapolis’ Rhymesayers and into a league of his own.
MONDAY NOVEMBER 16
As we noted a few months back in our preview of the UW Cinematheque’s fall 2015 schedule, Exposed is the only film in the Marquee Monday schedule to have been widely released upon its completion, but that by no means implies that it was intended for a broad audience. Written and directed by James Toback (Seduced And Abandoned), this “utterly ridiculous, totally engrossing nonsense” puts its own slightly-canted spin on the oh-so-relatable story of a Wisconsin farm girl, played by Nastassja Kinski, who moves to New York and ends up a model stalked by mysteriously creepy men, most notably a violinist (Rudolf Nureyev) and a terrorist (Harvey Keitel). America's Next Top Model and/or David Bowie fans should keep their eyes peeled for Janice Dickinson and/or Iman as—what else—models!
TUESDAY NOVEMBER 17
Producer and singer-songwriter Sidney Johnson, aka Midas Bison, moved away from Madison late last year, just as we were getting to know his exuberant but lyrically raw electronic pop. But after a stint in El Paso, he’s settled back in town and this will be his first headlining show since returning. Johnson tells us that he is at work on new material in a few different projects right now. His most recent Midas Bison release, this April’s Trios, brings a new polish and focus to the glittery, euphoric beats and synth layers he explored on a series of preceding EPs, but standouts like “Finally” and “Little Dove” combine that with vocal performances that dig into themes of sexuality, depression, and drugs with disarming vulnerability.
Chicago band MAMA's recent EP Speed Trap (released on sturdy rock-n-roll label HoZac Records) charges into its bright guitar hooks and muscular choruses with a burly good cheer that can't help but recall Thin Lizzy. On songs like "Open Secret" and Columbia Twosome," MAMA is hard-hitting, focused, and just the right amount of self-effacing to give it all balance. They're joined here by newer Madison band Uzi Ferrari and local power-pop standouts The New Villains.
WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 18
This fall’s ever-vital Spotlight Cinema series wraps up with the new Cemetery Of Splendor, the latest from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The drama’s story centers around a group of soldiers who come down with a mysterious sleeping-sickness, and the woman who ends up caring for them—a vague enough plot, but early reviews lead us to expect an exciting balance of stately realism and subtle otherworldliness.
On 2014’s disarmingly forward and extremely lyrical Bury Me At Make Out Creek Brooklyn-based songwriter, composer, and classically trained multi-instrumentalist Mitski Miyawaki found that special sweet spot where she was able to strip down some of the arrangement-heavy density of her previous efforts and recontextualize her voice and style into a stripped-down, haunting, and evocative guitar-driven pop-rock record. Album highlights like “I Don’t Smoke” and “Townie” find Miyawaki demonstrating how affecting her time-stopping, classically-influenced crooning can be over just a few buzzing chords and a simple rhythm. As noted previously, the clarity at which her incredibly focused lyrics penetrate the listener’s skull is completely disarming. When Mitski declares “I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be” in “Townie,” a line that’s plenty memorable on its own—wailing over recklessly fuzzy strumming and guitar feedback—the listener has little choice but to hear her out. This album is powerful and urgent and we highly recommend this one. Read more this week in our interview with Mitski.