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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 83.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Who is recording the best Wisconsin-themed protest songs?
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As Wisconsin goes queasily to the polls to choose a recall candidate, can Madison musicians help steady voters' hands? Here's a sample ballot of local tunes of and about the Walker era, from sturdy anthems to messy sermons. You can hear songs by several of these artists on the compilation Cheddar Revolution: Songs of Uprising, whose release is celebrated at the High Noon Saloon on May 6.


The labor favorite

If singer-songwriter Ken Lonnquist's album Our Place and Time were a candidate, it'd be the one picking up the AFSCME endorsement. Gomers keyboardist Dave Adler and other local veterans help Lonnquist perform 15 songs that feel dutifully, though genuinely, on-message.

"High Speed Rail" and "Pay Their Share" ensure you'll get some finer talking points in among the broader sentiments. Lonnquist celebrates the state Senate Democrats' journey to Rockford on "14 Senators," mustering a playful but dark blues feel with some strong guitar leads. The chorus calls the score "Senators 14, Governor Walker zero," which unfortunately isn't how things turned out.


The pugnacious statesmen
"Recall Anthem," by local hip-hop pillars Rob Dz, Dudu Stinks and DJ Pain 1, emphasizes Walker's education cuts. "Imma form an army of kids with no diplomas/and send them to your corner, 68th and Oklahoma/You can lobby with them on how to end this/You took away their social studies, their math, their science and their English," Dudu says in his verse.

Given all the imaginative work he's done with characters in the duo Stink Tank and the ambitious Billie James Project, I wonder if Dudu could have pulled off a Wisconsin parallel to the Coup's "Pimps," in which the Oakland hip-hop outfit imagined some one-percenters showing off their hidden rap skills.


The idealists
Like an upstart candidate rising from obscurity, some political tunes have conviction but betray a lack of finesse. The title track on local folk group Thistle and Thorns' new album, Through a Window, rhapsodizes wildly over the Capitol occupation. Singer-songwriter Thistle Pettersen and friends have taken loving care with the presentation here, fleshing out the songs with strings and musical saw.

But the song trips over its own earnestness as it moves on to smashing a cash machine and planting "corn, beans and squash" on the Capitol grounds, amid a chant of "Whose house? Our house!" Granted, a Capitol surrounded by high, thick crops could be cool, in an ominous Children of the Corn way.

Speaking of folks who've spent a lot of time in the Capitol, the Solidarity Singers just celebrated the release of a CD, which unfortunately wasn't ready at deadline. What's clear enough is that this chorus could out-detail a hardened policy nerd: Their 2011 holiday songbook plugged nearly all the Walker administration's outrages and slights into 26 Christmas carols, including the exhaustive "Twelve Days" that supplants "five golden rings!" with "high speed rail!" The right may have all the money, but the left certainly has the most tireless diaphragms.


The sensible veterans

It's hard for a songwriter to simultaneously nail topical relevance and something more lasting, and on a quick turnaround, too. Singer-guitarist Annelies Howell has managed it twice, with two bands. On the rock band Centime's EP Occupied, Howell's "It Won't Happen to Me" takes on people in denial, especially health-care-wise: "Is the ER your only safety net?/Do you have two million dollars stuffed under your bed?"

Howell also wrote local power-pop stalwarts the German Art Students' "The Power and the Trust," which doesn't mention Walker by name but wonders about his past: "Did he have any fun, did he drink any beer?" In short, the song finds a surprisingly empathetic way to ask: Just what is up this guy's ass?


Irish rockers the Kissers' "Scotty, We're Coming for You" avoids a common trap for protest singers, feigning surprise at what, in the grand scheme of history, is a fairly common cycle of political iniquity. Frontman Ken Fitzsimmons could be singing about any episode of labor unrest and service cuts, except for these brief and heartening words: "I never knew how much I loved Wisconsin till I stood in the Capitol dome."

Thanks to the simple arrangement and group-shout chorus, the song sounds well considered, and also swept up in the communal indignation.

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