Episode #33 – Jan. 21, 2015

suzieEpisode #33 takes a tour of the musical projects of Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist Mark Ritsema that begins and ends with his playful gender-bending alter ego, Suzie. Other musical excursions along the way include Domino Records trio Night Moves, in addition to celebrated, yet now-defunct groups Mouthful of Bees and The Battle Royale.
Caught between a love for sleazy, riff-chugging glam bands and a fascination with Top 40 pop and R&B, Suzie is a wildly refreshing and charmingly weird new act that utilizes looping grooves, soft synths penetrated by bright angular beach guitars, and fuzzy falsetto vocals to create a sound that is familiar, warm & nostalgic like the blithe closing song of a grainy 80s film.

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Episode #32 – Jan. 7, 2015

munson_live_albumEpisode 32 is focused on Winona blues musician Mike Munson’s recent live album, which successfully incorporates many of the desirable qualities of live recordings and very few of the downsides. Solid audio quality, impassioned performances, new arrangements, extended versions, delightful improvisation, a cohesive choice of songs that includes previously unreleased tracks, and a masterfully tasteful dose of ambiance from the audience, not to mention the wonderful washboard rhythms of guest percussionist Mikkel Beckmen, reinforce the overwhelming feeling that Live at Ed’s was simply done right. The result is a satisfying reproduction of the live Mike Munson concert experience.

And what an experience it is! Recorded at a much-hyped Saturday night release party for Munson’s self-titled studio debut on November 9th of last year (the liner notes incorrectly say November 8th), this live album is filled with energy, both from the stage and the crowd. A raucous rendition of Good Gal Said, whose lyrics run through all the different folks that proclaim Munson’s narrator will end up dead if he “don’t quit his guitar playin’” (save his “good gal” of course), is a particularly apt example. At around 3 minutes into the song, at which point Munson is wailing about discouragement dished out by his very own sister, Beckmen opens things up considerably by ditching his washboard in favor of a tambourine and prompts the crowd to appropriately let out collective hoots and yelps of approval.

Good Gal Said is followed by a traditional, Rosie, to close out the album. Both are swampy, caterwauling stompers that are well suited for curtain calls. The rest of Live at Ed’s is more balanced. Munson’s driving electric adaptation of the Delta blues (which interweaves bass and melody lines à la John Lee Hooker), along with his more humble and unaffected vocals, are bolstered by Beckmen’s remarkably reliable rhythms. Their chemistry on tracks like Too Far Gone, Blackbird and Wanda’s Farm help bring the songs a notch above the self-titled in the intensity column, while at the same time also anchoring the music and making dynamic and emotional shifts seem effortless.

Which brings me to my personal favorite, Over Now. At six and a half minutes long (nearly double the length of the version on the self-titled), Munson’s live rendition of Over Now features plenty of variation, including lengthy improvisational intros and interludes. The song is still pleasantly sad and somber; but trading in the studio version’s acoustic timbre for the same electric guitar tone used on the rest of Live at Ed’s gives Munson’s droning slide guitar parts a freshness and weightiness that is disarming, complex, and beautiful. Add in Munson’s melodic vocal lines and Beckmen’s galloping, meditative pounding on the hand drum and the sum product is really easy to get lost in.

In summary, Live at Ed’s is a genuine treat. Munson’s ubiquity, skill, and good character has helped make his music a part of the quintessential Winona experience. And thanks to good fortune, and some really talented audio engineers, this is the definitive document of that experience. Gaze upon the bluffs and enjoy it, people!

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Episode #31 – June 25, 2014

ImaginaryJackEpisode 31 begins with a pair of tracks from a new album by MPLS-to-Chicago indie-rock project Imaginary Jack, and also features music from bluesman Nigel Egg, Electro-rock savants Apollo Cobra, breakout Madison WI chamber-pop sextet PHOX, and noise-pop songwriter & engineer Sam Keenan.

This was my last show of the year before taking a break until 2015.

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Episode #30 – June 11, 2014

shattuck_webEpisode 30 features folk-soul sounds from WI to LA transplant Nick Shattuck‘s crowdfunded EP, in addition to music from MPLS surf-punk superheroes The Sex Rays, melodic indie-pop band The Owls, punk trio Baby Guts, folk-rock quartet Reina del Cid, Duluth slowcore act Low, and disbanded blues rockers A Night in the Box.

Nick Shattuck was a regular staple in the music scene of La Crosse, WI and the surrounding area from 2006 to the fall of 2011, when he moved to the Los Angeles area. The following spring, Shattuck put out a crowd funding campaign with an ambitious $5,000 goal to fund the recording and manufacturing of a new 5-song studio EP. Drawing largely upon his friends and family back here in the Driftless, Shattuck surpassed his goal by $700 and released the Up Late, Dreaming EP publicly last summer.

Recorded in LA with producer Ben Leathers, Up Late, Dreaming is an impressive collection of brand new material that boasts fuller arrangements and a higher level of detail and production than his debut effort, 2010’s Chorus and Verse.

The song featured in this episode, Sun Burns On, is a stunning example of the growth and vision found in Shattuck’s new EP. Spacious and euphoric dual harmonies are cleverly blended with a harmonica in a section opens the song and is reprised throughout (including a chill-inducing instance without the backing tracks before the final chorus). Well-mixed percussion, tasteful electric guitar noodling, and a violin solo all make their presence felt as well. Most importantly, Shattuck’s silky smooth vocals come through with both grace and power. Throughout the EP, it is clear that Shattuck is following his heart and has found his groove.

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Episode #29 – June 4, 2014

shottoEpisode 29 features brand new music from La Crosse’s alt-country stalwarts Shot To Hell, in addition to tracks from up and coming Milwaukee honky-tonk Americana act Hugh Bob and The Hustle, MPLS indie-pop group Now, Now, Rochester blues crooner Annie Mack Band, fuzzed-out power pop trio Maudlin, indie-folk duo The Ericksons (a unique electro-pop track), and Duluth rockers Retribution Gospel Choir.

Shot to Hell’s new album Connected will be released at a show with Hugh Bob & The Hustle taking place June 20th at the Cavalier Theater in La Crosse. The album highlights a wide range of styles and emotions. Tracks shift from earnestness to tongue-in-cheek humor, raucous rock to country-fried pickin’, sensitive crooning to harsh wailing — all while maintaining a refreshing wit.

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Episode #28 – May 28, 2014

hippo2This week’s episode begins with music from Saint Paul’s underage tropical indie rock band Hippo Campus, before showcasing cuts from synth-heavy La Crosse act Random Tongues, MPLS indie fuzz trio Fury Things, Decorah’s legendary Joe Price, twangy country-folk singer Bill Geezy & the New Deal, and La Crosse alt-rockers Red Sky Warning. Lastly, this episode also features a track I recorded at Sun Studios in Memphis with my now-disbanded female-fronted rock band Accident Waiting to Happen.

Hippo Campus is a quartet of 2013 high school grads that was recently profiled on The Current’s local music blog by Andrea Swensson. Their sound is impressive. Tight and polished, it reminds me of Vampire Weekend, however that’s a comparison they brush off in the piece. Instead, they offer up the names of some more obscure English acts:

“In reality, the band says the are most influenced by Bombay Bicycle Club, Last Dinosaurs, Little Comets, and the defunct Manchester group WU LYF, who also had an enduring philosophical impact on Hippo Campus.”

It is sometimes too easy to forget how essential all-ages venues and stages are in developing and perpetuating a healthy music scene. Or as Ms. Swensson, put it in her piece:

“Why do these gifted young artists have to turn 18 before they can break into the wider local music community? “

As someone who both attended and played club gigs as a teenager (with my band Accident Waiting to Happen, also featured in this episode), I can certainly sympathize. While I have regrettably not been to a show at La Crosse’s all-ages mecca, The Warehouse,  in far too long, the club had such an overwhelmingly positive impact on my underage years that I make a point to donate whenever they have a fund drive. The Warehouse is vehemently against predatory “pay to play” policies as well, which Hippo Campus mentions in the piece by Swensson:

“There’s so much talent in younger bands nowadays,” says Jake Luppen, who leads Hippo Campus along with co-frontman and guitarist Nathan Stocker. “We have a bunch of friends who are doing the high school thing like we were doing last year. They’re all really talented, but it seems like a lot of venues prey on the fact that they’re so young, and make them sell a bunch of tickets. It’s a really big problem. These booking agencies, they don’t compensate for performances. You play shows for free unless you sell a bunch of tickets.”

Making live music accessible for all ages audiences and performers makes the entire music community stronger. I think musician and K Records founder Calvin Johnson put it best, in a quote that seems to pop up everywhere:

“Rock ‘n roll is a teenage sport, meant to be played by teenagers of all ages – they could be 15, 25 or 35. It all boils down to whether they’ve got the love in their hearts, that beautiful teenage spirit.”

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Episode #27 – May 21, 2014

ember2This week’s show features a pair of cuts from disarmingly intense nomadic songstress Ember Schrag, as well as music from Decorah’s Norwegian-American folk dance royalty The Foot-Notes, Britpop-influenced Wisconsin rockers Neon, McGregor Iowa’s Native American-inspired folk collective Big Blue Sky, and disbanded MPLS alt-rock vets X Ray Hip.

I had the pleasure to make Ember Schrag’s acquaintance and get familiar with her music during my stint as GM of KPVL in Decorah, when she was briefly living there in-between a move from her native Nebraska to her current location in New York. I was struck most by both her sparse, yet refined sound and her absolutely angelic, breathy, and lilting singing voice.

The avant-garde sounds, moody textures, and unique arrangements found on The Sewing Room give her otherwise sparse and simple folk / pop sound an enormous amount of depth and weight. It’s clear that Schrag spared no expense on The Sewing Room‘s production and was in fact assisted in bringing its engaging, yet prudent sound to life by a plethora of veteran East Coast musicians. As I’ve stated in other reviews, this polish pays off big.

Schrag’s singing voice, augmented by thematic and literate lyrics, is what really grabs one’s attention though. Plaintive and sweet while also feeling complicated, Schrag’s soft and judiciously accentuated vocals evoke a range of feelings; from earnestness to thrill-seeking, pensiveness to wonder. With The Sewing Room, Schrag has established an intriguing and compelling sound she can continue to explore for years to come.

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