The six weeks or so after Christmas aren't supposed to be a strong period for music, local or otherwise. But this winter the Isthmus mailbox has overflowed with what may be a record number of new CDs by local artists. I'm not sure why that is, but it's sure made cabin life a little more bearable as the snow has piled up level with the windowsills. With luck, you'll find some of these homegrown albums as enjoyable as I have.
Unfortunately, there's no funk, reggae jazz or hip-hop represented here. Or for that matter, any dance music. But you can't have everything. Besides, maybe those genres are best left to warmer seasons.
Bassist Jason Braatz says that the sci-fi lyrics accompanying Freighter's intense, precisely executed prog metal tunes don't follow a unified narrative. But you could have fooled me. As the ferocious trio pummeled my gray matter, I worked up a pretty nifty story line for their expertly recorded self-titled debut. In my metallic imagination, the eardrum-numbing journey kicks off with the thrilling, Motorhead-esque "Someone Set Your Voicemail From Stun to Kill," a devastating critique of a tired, dissipated world that's not worth saving. The next 30 minutes or so bob and weave through various depictions of entropy and annihilation.
But whatever. Thanks to academy-trained drummer Jamie Ryan and stentorian singer-guitarist Travis Andrews, the life force rages so mightily through the spaceship stomp "Forevertron" and the anthemic opus "Davey vs. Casey" that the what of Freighter's epic CD doesn't matter nearly as much as the how. This is supremely rockin' stuff, whatever the hell it means.
The pugnacious Madison-Milwaukee quintet the Rebuilts go in for a more basic garage/rockabilly vibe on their raucous EP Four on the Floor (Howlin' Sound). Drunk on punky nostalgia, lead vocalist Skip Peer sneers in the manner of deceased NYC bad boys Stiv Bators and Johnny Thunders. Meanwhile, guitarists Mike Graff and C.A. Andersen chop away on the kinds of primal chord progressions that are sure to take old-school types back to the glory days of Max's Kansas City. And by the time the Rebuilts close things out with the careening 1-4-5 rocker "Nursey Nursey," you half expect some leather-clad proto punk to pop out of the speakers to offer lusty shoutouts to the Dead Boys and the New York Dolls.
Is the cheeky, testosterone-laced "Call Girl Shuffle" a tad atavistic? Sure. But, hey, what self-respecting punk ever bowed to political correctness?
El Valiente are supplicants of a very different muse on their expansive instrumental album El Topo. (In fact, it would work well as an alternate soundtrack for portions of Alejandro Jodorowsky's supernally strange film of the same name.) With only guitar, bass, drums and glockenspiel in their arsenal, the Madison foursome present a clinic on the importance of dynamics and textures in contemporary rock music. Forget the breathless, wall-of-sound approach favored by today's pop-punkers or the self-consciously brainy stylings of most indie-rock kids. With El Valiente, you get airy, countrified evocations of forbidding desert vistas followed up by refulgent mood pieces and frantic guitar fulminations worthy of the angriest '80s post-punk outfits. Indeed, at times all three pop up within the same tune.
The sophisticated threesome certainly have plenty of musical antecedents (Calexico and Don Caballero both come to mind), but somehow that doesn't matter. Without a doubt, this is the most creative guitar-centric rock act working in Madison today.
Telepathos' Life as Monster is also highly crafted, but its inward-looking - and at times rather morose - pop-rock is more limited. Many of the tunes recall portions of Smashing Pumpkins' songbook, and songwriter/prime mover Patrick Jackson often channels both Billy Corgan's trademark whine and the Pixies' alt-rock bounce. That can be a good thing (the aptly titled "Steamroller" is chock-full of hooks, as is the brooding Nirvana analogue "Rose Kill") or a bad one, depending on the song.
Nevertheless, there's a strong talent lurking here, and you get the impression that if Jackson teamed up with a sympathetic producer, he'd get nibbles from the wider music industry. Right now, he's still rooted in the world of becoming.
Vid Libèrt, however, comes to us fully formed, and both his ambling indie rock and wistful alt-country are showcased to excellent effect on A Return to Mayaguez. Libèrt can space out into avant-garde weirdness, where plucked piano strings, musical saw, melodica, organ and more add controlled chaos to his droning pop tunes. But for the most part, his homey guitar work and his boyish, back-porch-quality vocals are the focal points of this alternately homespun and haunting disc.
I still don't know what to make of the troubling folk-rock tidbit "In Due Time," a truncated lament of something that's yet to happen in which Libèrt notes innocently: "Watching a brother or a sister die is not a world I have known, but that train's a coming soon in due time." In any event, it's a keeper. So is "Back Again," an eerie slice of psychedelic folk-rock layered with a bleak falsetto background vocal and broken up by a compellingly ramshackle guitar solo that makes Nick Cave's Grinderman sound like a straight-ahead rock outfit.
Not everyone will thrill to Libèrt's sonic universe. Of that I'm absolutely certain. But he digs deep here, exposing fragile, conflicted parts of himself that many youthful songwriters prefer to keep hidden.
Americana-leaning folk-rockers Flame Shark explore far different moods on their latest EP, Vireo (Scrub Brush). But like Libèrt's new work, this 2007 release includes several tracks that are ready to take control of any college radio station that will have them. The wistful pop-rock of "The Chimes at Noon" cagily crossbreeds Gram Parsons with Crowded House, while the Beatlesque "A Fossil" is Revolver as translated by Paul Simon and the Grateful Dead. And the melancholy guitar strummer "50 Years" has a humane sweetness about it that's very difficult to muster in the antiseptic environment of the recording studio.
Sometimes vocals waver off key; sometimes a guitar chord or a piano key could have been hit more evenly. But that's part of Vireo's - and Flame Shark's - charm. If someone played this EP between acts at, say, Bonnaroo, a lot of college-age fans would be scrambling to find out who recorded it.