Here at Isthmus we believe that "buying local" includes buying local music. So now that you've got all that Hanukkah gelt and Christmas dough burning holes in your pocket, we suggest blowing some of it on a few of the great CDs released by Madison-area acts over the past 12 months.
There are a lot of 'em. So many, in fact, that I couldn't get to the three 2006 releases discussed in this column until after Father Time had put the year to bed. If they don't fry your burger, you're bound to find something that does at great local independent stores like B-Side and MadCity Music Exchange. Those persevering, big-eared music sellers are one reason we have a lot of creative players here. And just like the bands, they deserve your support, too.
By all means go out to your favorite big box and pick up Guitar Hero II, but save a few bucks for these local players and purveyors. They make the city a more interesting place to live, and frankly, if the market doesn't support them, they'll move on.
The Skintones are probably capable of delivering mellow strumming and sweet trilling, but you won't find any of that wimpy, girly-man stuff on This Is Science, the Madison trio's third CD. This is punk-metal at its most economical, a blunt thump of raw power that draws blood with every thrusting power chord and steely bass line. And even throwaway tracks like the one-note Golden State jape "California Hangover" are supported by thick, echo-laden production that's better than what you'll find on many high-budget projects. At times the bass is so present it threatens to punch holes in the subwoofer.
In terms of subject matter, the Skintones generally bend toward things grim, gritty and gray. On "Bjs for Free," they offer up a sardonic, willfully crude expression of lust reminiscent of hardcore clown princes the Meatmen at their most metallic and least cuddly. On "Down South," they eviscerate the atavistic, grits-'n'-gravy way of being that still passes for Suthin' style while cooking up some convincing rural blues with help from local harp man and music scene character Mr. Blues. On "Aegean Breeze," they travel to the Greek Isles for a stentorian recitative that's part cerulean revelry and part neoclassical blood feast.
Then there's "Freak on Me," a throbbing rewrite of "All Day and All of the Night" that wraps a burly reworking of the Kinks' famous guitar riff around an unsettling evocation of a love-hate relationship. (On some tracks, the 'tones deliver their antisocial screeds with a wink and a grin; here the potential for violence seems very real.)
Sweetness and light? They're certainly in short supply on This Is Science. Then again, the Skintones do fear and loathing so convincingly, it's easy to forgive their fascination with the crummy side of life.
Fans of demanding, largely instrumental rock should make sure to keep the evening of Jan. 29 open for a rare local live appearance by Cougar at the High Noon Saloon. The Madison-associated band (it includes members of Youngblood Brass Band) has received kudos aplenty for its recent CD Law, which employs guitar, electronics, percussion, strings and more to expand outward from the cunning achievements of post-rock greats Tortoise and other modern instrumentalists.
The show is part of a U.S. tour celebrating the CD's "proper" release in this country, which follows earlier availability in Europe and the immediate Madison area. Discerning critical outlets like The Wire have hailed Cougar as masters of a precise, intricate brand of music that can range from studied and subtle to passionate and majestic within the space of a few bars. And they're right. The cyclical passages of the poignant chamber piece "Black Dove" are more fulfilling than what you'll find on many theoretically sophisticated art-music discs. The five-piece is also especially good at bringing together airy, tessellated guitars and anxious percussion (see the standout track "Five"), and sympathetic mixing work by Tortoise's John McEntire helps give sharp juxtapositions of musical ideas a very natural feel.
By all means, buy this album. It's already made some 2006 best-of-the-year lists, and it's sure to make more in 2007 once it becomes widely available in the States. But make sure to hear the band live, too. They'll give your esthetic sense a heck of a workout and shake your rockist foundations, too.
Mighty Short Bus sure aren't afraid to boogie on "Higher," the fifth cut on their CD Rogue Nation. This is heavy rockin' stuff of the sort that gets a beer-soaked roadhouse all hot and bothered on a Saturday night. It's reminiscent of Skynyrd, and the bass-toned guitar riff that drives the song is straight out of the '70s.
Indeed, the work of '70s classic rockers informs most of Rogue Nation. Feel like tripping back to the glory days of Little Feat? Check out the amiable fist-pounder "Fire." In the mood for those old country-rock hybrids that Muscle Shoals specialized in during the headiest days of Capricorn Records? The double leads and thick application of Hammond B3 on "Evil" will have you dreaming of "Sweet Melissa" and those now ancient pairings of Dickey and Duane. Long for something a little heavier? MSB have definitely studied at the feet of both the Bon Scott and Brian Johnson versions of AC/DC, so they've got you covered there as well.
Obviously, originality is not the Madison rockers' strong suit. But that's not such a terrible thing. Many jam bands get over by mashing up a half-dozen styles, wowing audiences with a mechanical eclecticism that's all surface and no heart. Conversely, MSB plainly enjoy what they're doing, and despite the vocalists' occasional problems with pitch, they make '70s-style boogieing seem like serious business.
If it takes a few beers or bong hits to get on their wavelength, so be it. That's the price they pay for reveling in sounds that were signed, sealed and delivered at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long ago.