Wednesday, August 29, 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Brett Newski - Life Upside Down (Releases September 7, 2018)

Don’t Listen to Brett Newski”. The rogue Milwaukee-area musician carries the anti-slogan like a mantra to every offbeat stop on his often relentless touring regiments- from basements and venues across America and Europe to the jungle of Sri Lanka, a long stint in Vietnam and a very short one at a local Wal-Mart. It’s a fitting catchphrase for a guy who has opted to carve out his own role in the musical landscape. Not only genre-defiant but also fiercely independent, he doesn’t quite fit into the contemporary banjo-pop trend, nor the nihilistic folk-punk racket, nor the 90’s-nostalgic indie aesthetic. What he does excel at is incorporating all of these influences into a wholehearted and unapologetic presentation of his authentic self. He has taken a long road to find out who he is, and it is on Life Upside Down that his self-deprecation and aloof brand of defiance is wrapped up in his self-imposed satirical classification of “dork-rock”.

A self-made artist in a made-up genre, equally out of place as he is out of time, Newski would have it absolutely no other way. Life Upside Down, to my ear, is an album about finding strength in uncharted territory. It is about finding your own way and your own voice, and putting everything you’ve got behind it, even when it’s uncomfortable, and especially when it’s upside-down, because that’s where life happens.

Life Upside Down follows 2017s LP Songs to Sink the American Dream. Newski has been admirably transparent with fans about his struggles with anxiety—the type that many people relate to and not enough talk about—and Songs to Sink… served as a scathing assault on the many outside perpetuators of stress and uncertainty. After allowing some distance from that exorcism (represented tangibly by February 2018s EP The Stars Are As Bright As a Nightlight), Newski detaches from all of those noisy and poisonous things and leaves them in the dust as he opens the world back up and charges headlong into it.

It all begins with The Aftermath, in which we “pick it up where we left off”. A pending catharsis couldn’t start anywhere else. This is an anti-breakup song in the sense that it isn’t the dissolution of a relationship Newski laments, but the optimistic yet inertia-less interim before moving on.

He gains his footing on Ride, which he describes as a “weirdos unite song for the underdog living on the fringe and operating outside the box". On it Newski opts to not play it safe—to make up for lost time in a finite chance at life by eschewing self-seriousness for the sake of experience and, in his words, “fully embracing dorking-out and having fun”. With that he hits the ground running on an album that plays like a roadtrip in gleeful celebration of uncoolness.

We ride shotgun with Newski as he cruises with the windows down and the radio up, chasing down a way to “live like he means it” (Can’t Get Enough), rolls through nights of somber yet optimistic introspection (Stars), rides on his momentum when loneliness picks another fight (Afternoons), and reminds himself to stay present and set down the Heavy Things and embrace the lack of control (Yesterday You Said Tomorrow)—all the while displaying his heart squarely on his sleeve and waving the lighthearted translucence of Tom Petty in the open air like a flag.

Newski has described Life Upside Down as somewhat of a 90s throwback album, and nowhere is that vibe more prominent, even in its title, than Sucker Punch. Opening with a “hey”-laden power-chord intro that paraphrases Nirvana closely enough to seem (maybe) intentional, its immediately subverted by the type of smokey-voiced, sing-talk verse that wouldn’t be out of place on an American Pie soundtrack or the post-Nevermind airwaves.

It isn’t always so copacetic though. As past ghosts re-emerge on the title-track, Newski finds himself nostalgic for the old aftermath, longing for the familiarity of solid ground; “I wish I could believe all these memories/but the past is heavy now”. It carries all of the honesty and torturous helplessness of The Gaslight Anthem at their most gut-wrenching, but also the awareness to know that the only counter-attack is to accept and be with it. The bottom has not fallen out, when he “wakes up, the smoke is gone”.

Although the album feels like a journey it never threatens to overstay its welcome, with the final track being its longest at only 3:14. After sharing such a range of moments with Newski, So Long places us where paths diverge—going out with a bang disguised as a whimper, the bittersweet sendoff of an old friend. It’s a lingering goodbye, a vow to someday once again pick it up where it is left off, but making sure to say everything that needs to be said, just in case. A perfect closing-of-the-proverbial-book, but also a tempting invitation to start it all over again, which is a thing you are going to want to do.

As he’s done throughout his prolific career, Newski crafts an un-unlikeable record that allows for immediate connection by distilling the infinite complexity of human emotion into effortless, timeless capsules. Through his heartfelt introspection and wide-open worldview, he offers proof that boundless perception and optimism is powerful enough to dispatch any anxiety and unworthiness that today’s world seems all-too-ready to deal out.

Life Upside Down will be officially released on September 7, and is available to pre-order HERE. I recommend a physical copy--the back-cover features "Brett Newski's Guide to Defeating Anxiety", wonderfully illustrated by the man himself. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: Waxahatchee - High Noon Saloon 7/20/17 (With Cayetana, Snail Mail)

In the midst of intense summer weather, Waxahatchee brought their own storm to Madison Thursday night.  Touring behind the stellar new album Out in the Storm (released just a week earlier), bandleader Katie Crutchfield delivered an unflinching 70-minute set of raw-nerve confessions to a sold out crowd at the High Noon Saloon

While Out in the Storm was born out of what Crutchfield refers to as "a fucked up relationship and intense breakup", she refuses to classify it as a breakup album.  It instead turns its focus inward, with the storm in question being one of emotional turmoil.  Crutchfield sneers (Never Been Wrong, No Question), seethes (Hear You), and throws daggers (Brass Beam) while simultaneously rising over it all (8-Ball, A Little More).  There is a stream-of-consciousness aspect to it on a song-by-song basis, as we hear her process all of it without ever attaching to any one thing in particular.  The album is not about succumbing to the storm, but enduring it.  It may be a surface-level downer, but the prevailing emotion is the empowerment and sense of potential that can only come after having weathered the storm, when all that's left is the truth.

In line with their subversion of the traditional breakup album is the professional approach Waxahatchee takes towards performance.  If it wasn't clear by the arsenal of guitars on stage and a kick drum sporting their band name in an unassuming font that they meant business, it certainly was when the quintet entered wearing Reservoir Dogs-style suits and ties.

Waxahatchee opened their set with Recite Remorse, one of the most understated and calm songs from the new album.  Emphasizing the lines "for a moment I was not lost/I was waiting for permission to take off", the song established an atmosphere of transition.  Even as the energy ramped up with standout single Silver, the band maintained it's deliberate yet restrained approach.  Crutchfield led her bandmates as if she was fronting an army, stoic and strong, with minimal if any words between songs.  They ran through nearly every song from Out in the Storm, while interspersing revitalized takes on several older tracks.  Katie's twin sister Alison Crutchfield was key to the fullness of the sound as she provided vocal harmony while switching between guitar and keys.  It was an almost orchestral delivery, as familiar standbys like Poison and The Dirt sounded vital and fresh and the new songs delivered on every bit of the urgency and passion of the record.

That isn't to say there weren't some emotionally charged moments.  During the first chorus of Never Been Wrong, when Crutchfield gazed out over the sellout crowd to snarl the lines "Everyone will hear me complain/everyone will pity my pain" it was clear that for that moment, we were all part of her army.  She seemed to let her guard down for the first time after bringing the band back out for the encore.  After hardly saying anything during the set, she seemed genuinely excited and proud to introduce each band member.  The encore itself carried a feeling of the storm having passed; consisting of the breezy La Loose, Out in the Storm-closing breather Fade, and the unabashedly fun Under a Rock.

Snail Mail

Snail Mail, an upstart teenage band from Baltimore opened the show.  They played about a half-hour set of lolling, understated songs that clearly emphasized the deceptively powerful vocals of Lindsey Jordan.  In a surprising move, the rest of the band exited the stage midway through the final song, allowing Jordan to deliver a solo performance of the emotional final verses.  It didn't seem like they had established the momentum necessary for it to fulfill its intended impact, but was nonetheless the type of brave move that makes an opening band memorable on a crowded bill.


Cayetana played next, delivering a set of tense, taught emo-ish pop-punk.  It was the Philadelphia trio's first time playing in Wisconsin, and they expressed surprised admiration for its beauty as well as great interest in Mount Horeb's Mustard Museum.  They showcased many songs from their new album, the self-released New Kind of Normal.  They leaned on amorphous tempos and some very cool early-Blink-esque bass guitar leads for a unique sound while maintaining a sense of genre familiarity.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Midsummer Housekeeping - The Missing Writeups

In my late-May outlook on upcoming shows, I enthusiastically promised a great summer. That has held true in that the shows have been killer, but I can't help but feel guilty to have missed writeups on a few. I did take a few notes at the shows though, and otherwise can go from memory- because at any rate, it feels necessary to at least touch on these before moving on

*BIG NECK FEST - The Hussy, Wood Chickens, Fresh Flesh, No Hoax
High Noon Saloon, 6/2/17


The Pines, High Noon Saloon 6/15/17 (w J Hardin)

Live music has a way of making a person feel a little bit less alone. Such was the vibe I had entering this show at my home-away-from-home. Local troubadour J Hardin had already taken the stage, with a soft orange lamp casting glow over his worn cowboy boots and open guitar case. Being accustomed to more..aggressive..bands, it was a bit jarring to not have to yell towards the doorman and bartenders, as well as to see the entire floor covered with tables and chairs instead of thrashing bodies. I loved it though after the initial adjustment- the audible clanking of bottles and occasional snippet of conversation only added to the ambience. All said, the context was ripe for Hardin and his "Coyote Brother" bandmate to ease out a heartfelt, at times foot-stomping, set of authentic backcountry strummin'

The Pines took the stage after a short layover with shimmering acoustic guitar and lush keyboard arrangements. The bass was mixed heavy, and one guitar occasionally asserted itself with an overdriven pickup. It took a bit to pick up on what they were putting down, but once I was on-board the dynamic play was admirable. In addition, the band featured two singers; one with a near-falsetto approach and the other with a John Prine-esque conversational tone. They worked this contrast well, and incorporated a lot of onstage banter about woodchucks and the summertime absence of college kids.

The show's relaxed and intimate atmosphere overall proved to be a welcome change-of-pace.

The Joy Formidable, High Noon Saloon 6/21/17 (w/ Eagle Trace)

I came to this one right from work, and unfortunately missed Eagle Trace. Fortunately though I walked in just in time to feel like I was being hit by a train as The Joy Formidable took the stage. While they adhere to certain pop sensibilities, in a live setting the band is clearly anchored to sheer noise and volume. This was the last stop on their current tour, and the impression was that we were getting everything they had left in the tank.

The songs, of course, where there. But nearly every one broke down into violent, fall-on-the-stage feedback, and nearly every one led into a strangely polite, very British introduction to the next aural sledgehammer.  I didn't have the wits about me to take notes on this show, so I can't comment on specifics, but I certainly remember the pummeling noise and conversational banter leading to a very amusing contrast.  

Deerhoof, High Noon Saloon 6/29/17 (w/ Proud Parents, Solid Freex)

I again missed the beginning of this show while being stuck at work.  I wish I could tell you how awesome Solid Freex are, but for the meantime we have to settle for a friend's assessment that "they rock" and "they sound like a Madison band..."

In the meantime, however, Proud Parents are becoming my pick as most exciting local band to see.  They have a very accessible way of bashing out songs that just gets more enjoyable every time.  It isn't so much that you have to be in on the joke to "get" them, because the band seems to effortlessly expand the joke so that it encapsulates everyone.  Proud Parents drop mortar shells, whether they are euphoric vocal harmonies or pinpoint guitar leads.

I'm intimidated to even write about Deerhoof.  I don't know that I've ever had more fun at a show.  The way that they combine rockin' grooves, oddball song structures, and daring vocal style is unlike anything I have seen.  They brought a virtuostic drummer and equally adept guitar master.  As a band Deerhoof operated as a nearly Lovecraftian entity; altering the very way we perceive music.  For the daring, they provide a rare bastian into the subconscious depth of fun itself.

*Wood Chickens stole this show, and will be covered in an upcoming review of their brand new album COUNTRYCIDE- stay tuned!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: Bad Bad Hats - High Noon Saloon 7/13/17 (With Heavy Looks, Disq)

Minneapolis group Bad Bad Hats took full advantage of a surprise headlining slot Thursday night.  The High Noon show was originally set to feature Jessica Hernandez & The Deltas, who were forced to cancel all of their performances in July, citing personal reasons.  The show went on, with Bad Bad Hats and Heavy Looks moving up the lineup and local group Disq added as the opener.  The High Noon allowed ticket returns and offered a new discounted price, and turnout was impressive nonetheless.  

I must admit with guilt that after a cumbersome work shift I didn't arrive at the show until Disq's last few songs.  Being unfamiliar with the band, I was surprised to walk in and see a teenaged quintet fronted by something of a Lou Reed lookalike.  Their sound held up strong though, with a nice dynamic at play between tight three-guitar rhythms and mellowed out Pavement-esque vocals.  They ended their set with a pretty ballsy "She's So Heavy" type blues jam.  I don't feel like I caught enough of them to write a whole lot without getting ahead of myself, but I am grateful that this show put them on my radar- it will be exciting to see where they take things.

Heavy Looks
I apologize for being the world's shittiest concert photographer

Madison's Heavy Looks formed while co-songwriters Dirk Gunderson and Rosalind Greiert were studying at UW-Stevens Point.  There they both worked as DJs for the student radio station, leading to a wealth of influences which they proudly wear on their sleeves.  With their alternating vocals and swaggering midtempo grooves, Heavy Looks sound a bit like they've stepped right out of the late-80's college radio heyday.  Rosalind's smoky vocals smoldered over a backing band that rollicked with a cocky, freewheeling aesthetic reminiscent of Patti Smith's group.  She traded lead singing duties song-for-song with Dirk, who channeled Thurston Moore at his most playful moments.  Their set lagged a bit during the more somber songs, but they ramped it back up to end with some straight-forward rockers that sounded like a less try-hard version of The Distillers.  I would have liked to see them play longer, but as an active band in the local scene there will surely be future opportunities to do so.

Bad Bad Hats

As Bad Bad Hats took the stage shortly after 10:00, it marked the beginning of a six-week tour for the band.  It was also the seventh time they have performed in Madison.  Frontwoman Kerry Alexander noted that we are nearing "gold pin status" - which would signify ten shows on her personal corkboard-map system of commemorating the towns in which they have played.  The front half of the floor had filled up by this point, and the band was received as one of our own.  They drew a mostly college-aged crowd and the show had an almost festival-like atmosphere - very friendly and positive.  

The Hats launched into their version of indie-pop, featuring a spacious, 60's-esque bounce which allows plenty of room for playful music box guitar leads and understated singing.  Kerry uses her beautiful voice as an instrument of its own, employing a breathy vocal technique and hints of a faux British accent which fit her persona and the musical context perfectly.  

I did not anticipate laughing as much as I did during this show, with Kerry's quirky onstage banter doubling as a mini-standup routine between songs.  Speaking in an awkward near-monotone, she introduced each song with anecdotes that were often vague but always relatable, and delivered in hilarious deadpan fashion.  Her bandmates cracked up along with the audience as she meandered through monologues about "Super America providing the snacks, while (she) provides the sorrows" and sleeping with her phone under her pillow...just in case.  This observational and accepting attitude towards 20-something life is mirrored by her songwriting.  She sings bluntly on themes of loneliness and unrequited love without falling into the traps of wallowing nor sugarcoating.  She allows herself to hurt, but maintains a balanced, sort of omniscient perspective which gives usually painful subject matter a cathartic buoyancy.  

Kerry established such an effective connection with the audience that the entire room became dead quiet as she began the heartbreaking Things We Never Say.  Alone with her guitar she bared her soul with the confessional song which she'd introduced as being about what you wish you could tell somebody but never do.  It was a powerful moment in contrast to the preceding lightheartedness of the set.  As the final notes rang out everybody stood silent and captivated until her smiling "thank you" triggered the night's biggest applause.  

The band used this momentum to slingshot into a series of upbeat rockers.  A muscular rendition of Shame in particular ramped up the energy level, and they ended their main set on a high note.  After exiting the stage, Kerry quickly returned by herself, announcing a "surprise cover song from (her) childhood".  After slowly plucking a few vaguely recognizable chords, it soon became apparent that we were being treated to the most harrowing and somber imaginable take on Blink 182's All The Small Things.  It closed the evening with a wink, encapsulating the earnest, heartfelt, and innocent nature of the band.

Kerry Alexander

Bad Bad Hats' tour continues with three weekend stops in Michigan.  Their much-anticipated sophomore LP is currently in the mixing process.  I personally cannot wait until their next Madison visit (and second and third after that on our way to that gold pin!)

Heavy Looks performs next Thursday at Milwaukee's Riverwest Public House, then the Art In here in town on 7/28

Follow The Noisepaper on Facebook to stay up-to-date on the local music scene!

Sunday, May 21, 2017


This is a subjective selection of upcoming local shows that have caught my eye.  It may (and hopefully will) be updated; not that it isn't a hell of a lineup already.  In the words of DeNiro's Jimmy "The Gent" Conway, "It's gonna be a good summer!"

May 25  Williamson Magnetic Recording Company
Heavy Looks, Laurel & The Love-In, Purra
For Fans of:  Florence + The Machine, Jimmy Eat World, Rilo Kiley
All Ages.  Donation of $5.  No Drinking.

May 27  Mickey's Tavern
Christian Dior, Sam Coffey, The Smells
For Fans of:  The Hussy, Miyha, noisey garage-pop...THIS is the new Madison Sound!
21+  FREE

JUNE 2  High Noon Saloon
The Hussy, Wood Chickens, Fresh Flesh, No Hoax
For Fans of:  Ty Segall, Nobunny, Jay Reatard, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Bikini Kill, Black Flag...just come to this fucking show
*The Hussy 7" Release, Wood Chickens LP Release!!
18+.  $8.  No dicks, no squares.

JUNE 3  Mickey's Tavern
Fire Heads, Gallery Night, Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, T-Tape
For Fans of:  Dinosaur Jr, Bad Brains, fun, beer
21+.  FREE.  No dicks, no squares.

JUNE 8  Williamson Magnetic Recording Company
Jonesies, Hey Sheboygan!, Glassmen
For Fans of: Fun, bouncy, boy/girl indie pop.  Minutemen, Vampire Weekend
All Ages.  Donation of $5.  No Drinking.

JUNE 20  Mickey's Tavern
Spokes, Suzi Trash, Mad Max Elliot
For Fans of:  King Tuff, Ty Segall, Suicide, Nobunny
21+.  FREE.

JUNE 21  High Noon Saloon
The Joy Formidable, Eagle Trace
For Fans of: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Arcade Fire, XX, Belle & Sebastian
18+.  $18 adv/$20 door

JUNE 23  High Noon Saloon
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Tony Molina, Ablebody
For Fans of:  Wild Nothing, My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths
18+.  $15 adv/$17 door

JUNE 29  High Noon Saloon
Deerhoof, Proud Parents, Solid Freex
For Fans of:  Captain Beefheart, Boredoms, Olivia Tremor Control, The Cars, Eagles of Death Metal...again, come to this motherfucker!
18+.  $15 adv/$18 door

Friday, May 19, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: Hippo Campus - Majestic Theatre 5/18/17 (with Remo Drive)

I was not quite sure what I was walking into Thursday night at The Majestic.  With no prior knowledge of Hippo Campus, I signed on to work the show based on the punny name and their descendence from a Twin Cities scene that has bred so many of my favorite bands.  What I didn't expect was a scene straight out of Beatlemania.  Hippo Campus drew a sold-out crowd of 600 predominantly high school and college-aged girls.  Many of them had been waiting outside the venue since before noon (some of those die-hards are in the picture above - taken that morning while I was hanging flyers).  While not the crowd I am accustomed to, there is no vibe quite like a sold-out show and the energy was almost tangible.

Fellow Twin Cities act Remo Drive opened the show shortly after 9:00.  They were well-received by a crowd that was ready to explode had it been Ronald McDonald taking the stage.  With a deafening burst of feedback, Remo Drive asserted themselves as no clowns.  A band that is gaining traction in punk circles, they flaunt a big sound for a trio.  They came out firing with a sound that is equal parts a throwback to classic emo and a genre-savvy, forward-thinking take on pop-punk.  Volatile bursts of noise were offset by calculated breakdowns and non-subtle emoish reflection.  I would have loved to see them ride on the chaos more without getting bogged down by borderline corniness, but the band burned hot throughout and they delivered it well.  Looking barely out of high school, their enthusiasm was contagious as they led the audience through a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for their friend Michael, asked if anybody in the crowd had heard of them before (and seemed genuinely blown away by the positive response), and made sure everyone got the irony of them naming their brand new debut album "Greatest Hits".

While the collective screech and eruption of cellphone glow upon their entrance suggested otherwise, Hippo Campus proved to be more indie rock than boy band.  They displayed a polished and energetic version of hipster-pop, using unfamiliar time signatures and instrumental timbres to evoke world music in a way similar to bands such as Vampire Weekend, as well as the literacy and sophistocation of Car Seat Headrest.  While this may sound like the formula for a contrived and pretentious sound, their accessible stage presense and humble delivery made it nothing but positive and fun.  Barefooted singer Jake Luppen in particular took remarkable command of the stage without needing to say much to the audince.  He instead opted to let the bouncy, danceable tunes speak for themselves.  Rather than the typical tired onstage banter and posturing, he engaged the crowd in a lot of clapping and singing-along, while letting the atmosphere settle in between songs before stirring it back up again.  The setlist was spot on, balancing its more somber moments with the beach-party aura of its peaks.  This combined with an impressive light show to make it seem like a much bigger concert.

I consider myself won over by both of these young bands.  I don't know if they'll make their way into my listening rotation, but they are certainly on my "keep an eye on" list and I would not hesitate to catch either of them the next time they're in town.  In a locale as nurturing as the Twin Cities there is no limit to their impending success.

Monday, May 15, 2017

SHOW REVIEW: The Dear Hunter - High Noon Saloon 5/14/17 (with Brett Newski)

By the time The Dear Hunter took the stage at High Noon Saloon Sunday night, the near-capacity crowd was primed and ready.

Local DIY hero Brett Newski opened the show, one night after the release of his LP "The Worst of Brett Newski".  Newski draws a loyal following to any Wisconsin show, and he played his 35-minute set as if it was for his closest friends.   Alone on stage with his acoustic guitar (which he "should not have bought while living in Vietnam"), Newski established an effortless connection through his comical mixture of satirical and self-deprecating songs - often introduced with personal anecdotes such as finding out just how many "eskimo brothers" you have, and the downside of Vietnamese guitars.  His new song "Bro Country" was particularly well-received by the demographic, skewering America's douchiest genre with such lines as "Johnny Cash is rolling in his grave/Wishing he was still alive so he could blow his brains away".  Two of his later songs included audience participation - which only required a little bit of explanation and cohersion on Newski's part after expressing his sympathy, ("Yeah, I know this sucks...").  All were left won over by his down-to-earth aura of unabashed dorkiness.

On a tour in which they have primarily opened for Coheed and Cambria, The Dear Hunter reveled in the headlining opportunity.  While the Rhode Island sextet was thrilled to perform a full set for a full crowd, they also admitted to having no idea what to talk about between songs.  They eventually landed on Rick Sanchez impersonations and a brief analysis of their  dreams from the previous night -which involved "endangered 'tiger-bear' cubs'" and only selling four tickets.

There were far more than four atendees however, and The Dear Hunter's nearly-operatic brand of indie rock kept every one of them engaged.  The dirty guitar-rock of heavier songs such as  "The Most Cursed of Hands" offset the more grandoise elements of their catalog, and every song was performed with the urgency for which they've become known.  They did not perform an encore, deciding that "instead of going into a room for a few minutes and pretending (they were) gone, (they would) just play  the rest of (their) songs" - a simple yet endearing touch that is  very fitting of the band's aesthetic.

The Dear Hunter's tour continues tonight in St. Louis, while Brett Newski returns to his nomad lifestyle in Milwaukee.
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