Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Jesse Ponkamo

Tenement – Bruised Music Vol. 2 (Album Review)

Tenement I

It’s only a week and a half into April but there have already been a slew of outstanding full streams to snake their way out into the public world. Among those titles are worthwhile efforts from the following: Kevin Morby, Good Dog, Culture Abuse, ShitKid, Space Raft, Holy Pinto, Free Cake For Every Creature, Ashley Shadow, Former Belle, Slushies, Wilder AdkinsKidpolaroid, Reptilians From Andromeda, Gorgeous Bully, John Shakespear, Cotopaxi, Dana Falconberry & Medicine Bow, Murena Murena, and In  Love With A Ghost.

In addition to all of those bands’ new releases, there was also another outstanding installment of the DBTS:BS series via their third volume: DBTS:BS3. While all of those succeeded on their own terms, it was — unsurprisingly — the second of Tenement‘s Bruised Music compilation series that wound up registering as a genuine standout (and subsequently snagging this post’s featured spot).

For close to a decade now, Tenement has been one of the most influential bands in my life, both directly and tangentially. At this point, no band has been covered on this site more extensively than the Wisconsin trio, who I’ve lobbied for endlessly- to anyone who would listen. At some point, their songs became such a personal marker for me that they inseparably intertwined themselves to very specific parts of my life. To that extent, when I listen to Bruised Music Vol. 2, it’s extremely difficult to separate the music from my own personal history. However, it’s not entirely impossible to divide them into arenas that are mutually exclusive.

A large part of the connection I have to these songs can be directly sourced back to what made Tenement my favorite band: the surprisingly literary aspects of the songwriting, the unapologetic commitment to carving out an incredibly well-informed pop-sensibility, the absolute refusal to adhere or appropriate any of the trends that have unceremoniously appeared and disappeared throughout the time of their existence, and a genuine, undeniable, uncompromising passion for the music they make, fearless risks and all.

On the first collection of the Bruised Music compilations, I contributed an extensive piece for the record’s insert on how the band played  a large role in shaping my tastes and — to some extent — my own humanity. While Bruised Music Vol. 1 was an impressively comprehensive look at the band’s earliest era, Bruised Music Vol. 2 is a different beast entirely. Where its predecessor was more concerned with the band shaping a very particular sound, the latter excels in that sound’s expansion, deconstruction, and absolute demolition.

While there are still moments speckled all over Bruised Music Vol. 2 that are reminiscent of their early works, the majority of their latter efforts are imbued with a more adventurous approach to songwriting. A cleaned up version of “Taking Everything” — a song that originally appeared on a 2011 7″ that ranks as one of the best entries in an extraordinary discography before being released again in demo form on a Burger-issued cassette package of Napalm Dream  — which kicks the compilation off, may be the record’s most straightforward moment.

Where this version of “Taking Everything” differentiates itself between the powerful 7″ version and the frantically-paced demo version rests squarely in the drumming pattern, which ultimately winds up being a fascinating glimpse at the band’s decision-making process. Considering how overwhelmingly thoughtful Tenement’s songwriting construction has proven to be, time and time again, that’s not something that should be taken for granted. All of the subtle intricacies that have come to define the band’s musical aesthetic only point to an unavoidable conclusion: this band’s not just surpassing their peers as pure composers, they’re offering up masterclasses at an alarming rate.

It’s patently absurd that Bruised Music Vol. 2 is going to be viewed, largely, as a collection of scraps because they scan as essential elements of the band’s oeuvre. Whether it’s the more direct fare of Bruised Music Vol. 2‘s opening run or the more avant garde leanings that shape the record’s back half, there’s an evident level of painstaking care that goes a long way in making sure everything is represented adequately.

Toy pianos, sheer noise, and unrelenting dissonance inform the collection’s braver moments, like the instrumental “Jet Slug”, which casually reaffirm Tenement’s well-earned status as a singular act operating on the fringes of punk, noise, hardcore, and powerpop. For every stacked-to-the-heavens pop-leaning anthem that appears, there’s a stark counterbalance that arrives in tracks like Sick Club Vol. 3‘s extraordinary, convention-defying “Books on Hell and Sermons on TV”. While the band may have made their name on the former, it’s their unbelievable skill with the latter that’s elevated them from one of the most exciting bands presently operating to one of the outright best.

One part of Tenement’s ethos that never gets enough recognition is their complete and total willingness to disregard their most commercially accessible trappings in favor of intensely bold choices that have left sizable portions of their audiences feeling completely alienated. Whether that’s via the typically downtrodden Realism-Americana-Southern Gothic narrative hybrids of Amos Pitsch’s lyrics, the band’s embrace of John Cage-esque explorations of noise, or their continued refusal to be pigeonholed into any particular genre (much to the chagrin of many purists), they’ve established themselves as their own entity.

Bruised Music Vol. 2 functions strongly enough to have a legitimate shot at becoming the definitive example of how Tenement evolved into one of America’s most fascinating bands. None of these songs are weak and each one benefits from a very specific personality that betrays the band’s small-town upper Midwest upbringing. As a collection, it’s fairly representative of Tenement’s 2010-2014 era. As a standalone record, it’s stronger than most acts best release. As a demonstration of everything that has distinguished Tenement as one of the most inspirational acts in contemporary music, it’s an absolute necessity.

Listen to Bruised Music Vol. 2 below and order it from Grave Mistake here.

15 of ’15: The Best EP’s of 2015

Slight I

Now that all the visual retrospectives are out of the way and the best live videos have been accounted for, it’s time to move onto the records in earnest. Over the course of the next several days there will be “best of” lists for the following categories: music videos, odds and ends (demos, 7″ records, compilations, etc.), songs, and albums. There will also be an Honorable Mentions devotion that covers a massive array of material from the majority of those categories. Following those lists will be the second installment of the A Year’s Worth of Memories series, which will once again feature a murderer’s row of contributors that have been pulled from both the music and film worlds.

For now, we’re turning our attention to the EP’s that made the most formidable impressions over the course of the past 12 months. Well over 100 titles were considered and then boiled down to the 15 that you see below (this was such a strong year for EP’s that the top 5 are essentially interchangeable). Before delving into those titles, it’s worth noting that “best” in the case– as it is in all cases– is just a meaningless formality and the list below is a reflection of subjectivity. I make no claim to be an authoritative voice in these matters, just a person that genuinely enjoys music and uses a platform as a means to attempt to elevate some of the acts that truly deserve to have their names in greater circulation. So, without further ado, here’s 15 of ’15: The Best EP’s of 2015.

15. Idle Bloom – Some Paranoia

Sometimes all you need to do is offer to help carry equipment to be introduced to incredible new bands, which is exactly how I met Callan Dwan, who I would come to learn is not only Mitski’s guitarist but one of the guitarists for two other acts as well: Dogtooth and Idle Bloom. The latter– a shoegaze-obsessed post-punk act (or is it the other way around?)– recently released their Some Paranoia EP, which stealthily builds its momentum in a clever, multifaceted way; not only do the majority of the songs work their way into a cacophonous frenzy but so does the EP as a whole. It’s an exhilarating listen from a promising emerging act and boasts one of the year’s best riffs.

14. ThinLips – Your Divorce

An extraordinary opening track can do wonders for any release. An effective opening track will set a precedent and a tone for the ensuing material on the record. Your Divorce‘s opener “Nothing Weird” is both effective and extraordinary. Brandishing a compellingly damaged form of lo-fi leaning pop-punk, ThinLips crafted a vicious, compact stunner of an EP that comes across like a warning shot. In a genre that’s increasingly weakened by diminishing returns from the artists utilizing reverential approach, it’s heartening to see the more subversive acts releasing material that feels genuinely vital.

13. Bad Wig – Bad Wig

Before Bad Wig was Bad Wig, they were The Midwestern Charm, an act that worked their way from a sound that fell closer in line to Ryan Adams to crafting a record that fit better alongside the likes of The Lemonheads. A few member changes and stylistic shifts later, they’d carved out a new identity under their new name. Their introductory act is ferociously ragged and maybe even a little audacious. Most everything else there is to be said about this brilliant collection of punk-tinged micro-pop gems can was covered in last week’s review.

12. Potty Mouth – Potty Mouth

A lot of bands found surprisingly bold ways to shift their sound but none caught me as off-guard as Potty Mouth‘s fearless swan dive into the polished, arena-ready sounds of their self-titled EP. Opening with the skyward stretching of “Cherry Picking” and only building momentum from there, Potty Mouth could very easily signal a new era for a band that was formerly known for reveling in their scrappier tendencies. Every song on the EP connects with a staggering amount of force, nicely correlating with the self-possessed determination found at the root of nearly every song in this collection. Potty Mouth is the kind of rallying call that echoes.

11. Midwives – Cowboy Songs

After releasing a fierce full-length debut back in February, Midwives managed to top themselves as the year was drawing to a close. The shockingly immediate Cowboy Songs dishes out punishment at a startling rate and bristles with real emotion. Things kick off with the vicious “Back in the Saddle” and never look back from there, each subsequent song in this seven and a half minute collection of deranged hardcore acting as a flawless showcase of the band’s brute strength. Cowboy Songs is filled to the brim with the kind of hardcore that thrashes around wildly and refuses to be tamed.

10. Geronimo! – Buzz Yr Girlfriend: Vol. 4 – Why Did You Leave Me?

While a lot of people were justifiably saddened over the losses of Ovlov and Krill, it may have been the departure of Geronimo! that hit hardest. Granted, for the vast majority of my life, they were easily the closest to my location of that trio but the sentiment remains. At the very least, the trio went out on top with their final bow: Buzz Yr Girlfriend: Vol. 4 – Why Did You Leave Me?. Characteristically unwieldy, the band’s final three songs ranked among the best work of a deeply impressive career, each (justifiably) landing a premiere at a massive publication. Fitting levels of recognition for an overwhelmingly powerful final effort.

9. Teksti-TV 666 – 2

One of the biggest surprises of the year for me personally, this blistering EP from Finnish act Teksti-TV 666 practically qualifies as an album by today’s standards (its runtime is over 22 minutes). Full of surging basement pop that’s not too far off from the best of The Marked Men, the aptly named swings for the fences at every turn without hesitation. Incorporating a several-member guitar attack that may rival Diarrhea Planet’s, the band finds new avenues to explore as the record careens headfirst towards something concrete. After the fireworks of “Tuhatvuotinen Harharetki”, the band never lets up and goes on exploratory tangents at will. Psychedelic flourishes, sludge breakdowns, and a serious amount of momentum carry to its status as one of the best of 2015.

8. Slight – Hate the Summer

Hate the Summer prompted a few difficult guideline decisions for this list: was it ethical to include an EP anchored by a song that premiered on this site and would a tape release of the EP that included the entirety of an online single that this site ranked as last year’s best be eligible for contention? The answers, obviously, were “absolutely” and “yes.” The latter line of questioning was the one that was scrutinized the most for this list and wound up excluding Meat Wave’s formidable Brother from eligibility (nearly half of the EP pulled from a variety of the band’s other releases, rendering it more of a padded compilation than an EP). With Hate the Summer, the band’s not only expanded the scope of their work but they’ve tapped into something with the three new songs on display here that have the potential to lift this project to new heights of outside recognition. Overall, it’s an important early piece of the trio’s developing history and deserves to be heard as many times as possible.

7. Midnight Reruns – Get Me Out

A staple of this site’s coverage since its introduction, Midnight Reruns rewarded that attention by taking a huge leap with this year with their two strongest releases to date, beginning with this bleary-eyed EP. The Tommy Stinson-produced “Ain’t Gonna Find” sets things in motion and establishes the band’s manic basement pop sensibilities in the early goings, with Graham Hunt’s million-words-a-minute delivery emboldened by the characteristically fierce lead guitar work between Hunt and Karl Giehl. From that blistering opening number, the band takes a step back and sinks their teeth into more left-field territory like the rollicking “Ancient Creature”, which boasts the instantly memorable chorus couplets of “I am the sun, I am the sea/I am an ancient creature/I was born in Madagascar/I was raised by lemurs” and a bruising cover of The Mistreaters’ “The Other Man”.

6. Sheer Mag – II

Another year, another Sheer Mag list placement. Expanding on everything that made the band so great right out of the gate, II was a natural extension of its predecessor, driven by the wild energy of its phenomenal closing track, “Button Up“. All of the glam influences remain and the band likely owes a remarkably huge debt to Marc Bolan but it’s hard to care about influences when the music manages to be so ridiculously entertaining. People will talk about how ’50s pop seeps in around the band’s roughest edges but really, they should probably just stop talking and start dancing. Scrappy and deliriously fun, II‘s another triumph.

5. Diet Cig – Over Easy

No EP soundtracked more aimless drives for me this year than Diet Cig‘s endearingly jubilant Over Easy, which served a necessary reminder that sometimes the most important function music can have is a sense of joy. In the face of a horrifying year in the news, an onslaught of overly-serious releases, and a general downcast pall, Over Easy was a breath of fresh air; a pair of young musicians finding their voice. Every song on Over Easy is memorable not just for its irreverence but for its uncompromising energy and impressive levels of commitment. Warm weather anthems abound and guitarist/vocalist Alex Luciano gets to deliver one of the year’s most scathing kiss-off’s in the final track’s most rousing section.

4. LVL UP – Three Songs

In 2014, site favorites LVL UP topped this site’s Albums of the Year list with ease thanks to the overwhelming brilliance of Hoodwink’d, which was the most perfect distillation of the respective voices of the band’s three principal songwriters to date. Three Songs continues that trend in miniature, allotting a song a piece from Dave Benton, Mike Caridi, and Nick Corbo. All three bring a palpable sense of weariness to the proceedings, immediately rendering this LVL UP’s moodiest record. From the spiky micro-pop of “Blur” to book-ends “The Closing Door” and “Proven Water Rites”, there’s never a dull moment and the band, once again, leave their guts on the table before walking out the door.

3. Ernie – Dog Park

Occasionally, a single song can elevate an already-strong release to unthinkable proportions, which is exactly what happens with Ernie’s delightful Dog Park and its monumental centerpiece, “Sweatpants“. While all four songs contained in Dog Park are memorable and have an impressive host of great moments, it’s the frantic, hook-laden “Sweatpants” that brings the collection together and enhances its immediate surroundings. A surging jolt of relatable discontentment emphasized by a vicious undercurrent of basement pop aesthetics, “Sweatpants” becomes Dog Park‘s definitive moment and simultaneously becomes an unwitting microcosm of 2015’s prevailing sense of disillusionment before turning on that notion in defiance and letting loose a series of blows. Dog Park‘s status as one of 2015’s great releases is cemented in the process.




2. Tenement – Tenement

No band was written about more- or in greater detail- throughout the course of 2015 than Tenement. For nearly 10 years, I’ve been clutching at mostly empty air while damaging my lungs screaming at seemingly empty rooms to go listen to this band. 2015 was the year where everyone started listening. Of the band’s three releases throughout the past 12 months, their self-titled effort was by far the least discussed. Originally released as a limited-run cassette for one of their early tours, the trio decided to release it to the general public several months later, potentially realizing that it deserved a much wider audience. Focusing on the band’s underlying roots, country, folk, and soul influences without ever completely sacrificing their punk bite, Tenement‘s easily the band’s most easygoing collection as well as its most immediately timeless. Keep its open-road sensibilities in mind for your next long drive.

1. Cende – Cende

Capping off an extraordinary year for drummer (and occasional guitarist) Greg Rutkin (LVL UP, Slight, Normal Person, etc.) was Cende’s explosive self-titled debut, which was recently released online (the bandcamp lists the official release as January 1). The band’s been playing these songs out for a while and garnered heavy coverage from this site during its extended Brooklyn residency. An LP is due out in 2016 as well and, after this EP and the live previews, it’s already one of the most highly anticipated releases of 2016. Taking cues from acts like Radioactivity, Cende has already perfected their blend of searing basement pop and unforgiving basement punk. Only two of these songs- including “Widow”, the opening track and one of the year’s finest- go over the 90 second mark and all of them boast hooks powerful enough to keep pulling the listener back, making Cende an endlessly replayable gift. It’s a monstrous release from a band refusing to aim for anything other than greatness and continuous improvement. Cende is one hell of a starting point.

2015: A Visual Retrospective, Vol. 1

Radioactivity

Throughout the course of 2015 I’ve been fortunate enough to attend upwards of 100 shows, festivals big and small, and spend approximately half a year living in a city that hosted a mind-boggling amount of quality shows on a nightly basis. To that end, it’s probably unsurprising that I wound up taking over 10,000 photos this year alone. Over the course of the next few days, this site will be running seven volumes of the shots that stood out as personal favorites, whether that was due to their composition, sentimental attachment, or an intangible emotional or intellectual response. It’s been an honor to be able to take even the smallest part in the ongoing sagas of the artists in the photographs below and an additional thanks is due to the venues that allowed me to shoot (as well as the people who encouraged me to keep shooting).

Enjoy the gallery.

Tenement – Tenement (EP Stream, Review)

Tenement II

Between the end of last week and the start of this one, this site hasn’t ran a lot of material. A lot of this is due to some upcoming live coverage and the editing that live coverage entails. As is always the case, though, an eye was kept on the emerging content and everything that registered as great was compiled into a list for future reference. Of those lists, the full streams may have been the most stacked, featuring no less than three year-end contenders, including Tenement, this post’s featured EP. For full-lengths, it’d be hard to do much better than the staggering 1-2 punch of the full-length debuts from site favorites All Dogs (Kicking Every Day) and Dogs On Acid (Dogs On Acid) though that didn’t detract from the great new records that started streaming from Frog Eyes, Willis Earl Beal, Fake Palms, i tried to run away when i was 6, Sea Lion, and Tamaryn. Then, of course, there was the re-release of the extremely limited run self-titled tour tape that was released earlier this year by a band that played a crucial role in the development of this site’s functionality, aim, and preference: Tenement.

Following a pattern that emerged around the time Napalm Dream was released, the band’s been ushering in new music with an impressive recklessness. While this time around the band opted to release a behemoth of a double album in Predatory Headlights, rather than opting for the individual split as they did with Napalm Dream and The Blind Wink, they’ve still got material to spare. After kicking this year off with their outstanding early career compilation Bruised Music, Volume 1 (a collection I had the distinct privilege of contributing a piece to for the zine insert that served as the record’s liner notes), they’re restlessly pushing forward with an appropriately ragged five-song collection that they recorded back in February. As mentioned earlier, the tape was held to a run of between 50-60 copies and only made available for their tour with Priests and Vacation.

Tenement’s always been characterized by their steadfast adherence to a DIY ethos but that aspect of their identity has never been so fully reflected by any of their releases than it is here, which is likely why the band opted to make it a self-titled. As the collection plays out, there’s a very real sense that these songs were crafted in a manner where the band felt unburdened by any lingering expectations. Of course, it’s still a Tenement record so the level of songwriting is exceedingly impressive and more than a little indicative of what makes the band one of today’s absolute best.

In a sense (or a few, rather), Tenement‘s actually more attuned to the sensibilities of guitarist/vocalist Amos Pitsch’s Dusk side project. The playing- and feel- from song to song is a lot more loose than Tenement songs tend to wind up being upon their official release and carry on with an easygoing naturalism that renders Tenement an endlessly listenable EP that’s as perfectly suited for open roads as it is a quiet night in. Curiously, all the songs are also titled after a line from the respective choruses or refrains, which is something the band’s generally avoided in the past, which also seems to solidify the fact that this is one of the most direct releases the band’s ever issued. While Pitsch still writes with the flair of a classic Americana novelist, he’s substituted a lot of his more obtuse looks with an emphasis on his lyrics’ more earnest aspects and it suits these songs to perfection. Bassist Jesse Ponkamo and drummer Eric Mayer, as ever, continue to prove their worth as one of today’s most valuable rhythm sections, keeping these songs grounded while still managing to lend them a widescreen appeal, some light menace, a wide-eyed sense of wonder, or an air of gritty determination.

Taken as a whole, Tenement is one of the more unexpected entries in the band’s catalog but it also may be its most quietly rewarding. Favoring understatement over exhilarating moments of power almost exclusively throughout its sub-14 minute run time, Tenement puts a microscope up to one of the band’s more under-utilized modes and results in an unlikely, willing EP that seemed fated to drop off into obscurity just a few short weeks ago. Thankfully, that’s not the case and now anyone who cares has access to “Everyone To Love You”, “Underworld Hotel”, “Witches In A Ritual”, “The Strangest Couple In Love”, and “Roads To Home”. Easily one of the band’s more enigmatic moments, Tenement‘s also one of 2015’s finest releases. Now that it’s finally here, don’t let this one fade into a footnote; turn it up and hit repeat when it’s done.

Listen to Tenement below and pray that it eventually gets repressed in some format. In the meantime, revisit the rest of the band’s unbelievable discography at their bandcamp and watch this site’s own collection of live Tenement videos below the stream.

Tenement – Vultures (Stream)

Tenement I

When I think about the bands that have played an active role in shaping my musical identity, I always come back to Tenement. A band that’s constantly made their way on their own terms with unbridled tenacity. Perfectly representative of the upper Midwest, historically inclined towards classic literature and tirelessly committed to the kind of musical exploration that buries genre tags with ease. Willfully imperfect, ridiculously determined, incredibly thoughtful, and unfailingly kind, they distilled a greater understanding and appreciation in me of not just music but my state (and, even more specifically, my hometown). Over the course of eight years, I’ve seen them play countless sets, been fortunate enough to play with them a handful of times, filmed every set I could possibly manage, booked them at every available opportunity, and sang their praises as loudly as I could to whoever would listen.

The band’s come a long way in that time, maintaining their ethos even as their popularity progressively accelerated. Over the past few months alone, they’ve released Predatory Headlights a record that sparked an uptick in a national conversation about both DIY punk and double albums, were the focus piece of two New York Times posts, and completed a US tour. Now, as frequently happens with the band, they’re unleashing even more new material in the form of “Vultures”, a characteristically scrappy inclusion on Not Normal Tapes‘ forthcoming Bughouse I mixtape, a mix that features live, rare, unreleased, and alternate tracks from a laundry list of great artists (including site favorites Negative Scanner).

“Vultures” exists squarely in Tenement’s home recording mold, a setting that’s frequently lent a great amount of character to a large handful of Tenement songs (“Dreaming Out Loud“, “Books On Hell + Sermons On T.V.“, “Paper Airplanes“, “Blammo“, the demos of “Wouldn’t Let You Go” and Napalm Dream, the entirety of The Blind Wink, etc.). It retains all of the grit and energy that helped make them one of the most celebrated acts in punk while still managing to present the band as an act determined to keep pushing themselves forward. Guitarist/vocalist Amos Pitsch still has a keen eye for the mundane and presents it with the flair of an accomplished novelist. “It doesn’t pay for vultures to make friends, they’ll be ripping you apart in the end” warns the chorus, a bleak, matter-of-fact moment in deceptively peppy trappings.

Even with a sentiment that downtrodden, the song- as all the best Tenement songs tend to- comes across as both lived-in and affirming. In under two minutes the band cranks out a cautionary tale that’s laced with enough propulsive drive that it feels even shorter. Even in that runtime, the band manages to marry droll observations with layered falsettos, a genuinely incredible whispered vocal figure, and a few strong dynamic shifts. Smart, bruising, ridiculously catchy, and typically down-to-earth, it’s the exact kind of song that led me to proclaim Tenement as my favorite band. It’s also worth nothing that this is a song the trio shelved. Most bands would kill to have a song like this at their disposal, for Tenement, it’s just another song. For me, it’s yet another reason to celebrate one of today’s best bands. Don’t let this one fall to the wayside.

Listen to “Vultures” below and keep an eye on Not Normal Tapes’ bandcamp for further updates leading up to Bughouse I‘s August 19 release.

Tenement – Predatory Headlights (Album Review, Stream)

Tenement I

It’s been more than a week since I moved from central Wisconsin to New York and one of the more constant companions I’ve kept has been Tenement‘s current magnum opus, Predatory Headlights. Weeks ago I was already fighting the urge to review the record because it was clear from the outset that, although the large bulk of the songs are heavily immediate, it’d require patience and investment to fully understand as a whole.

For nearly a decade now, Tenement’s been an important fixture of my life. After being brought into the greater DIY fold at the band’s former home base, The BFG, and playing (or booking) countless shows alongside the band, I’ve been able to keep a close eye on their artistic progression. All it took was one five song set for me to decide they were Wisconsin’s best band but even back in 2008 it would have been difficult to realistically predict the heights they’d eventually reach.

After two extraordinary full-lengths, nearly a dozen 7″ releases, and a revealing early career compilation [Full disclosure: I wrote one of the pieces in the compilation’s zine insert], the band finally signed to celebrated punk label Don Giovanni (years ago, they became the first non-New Jersey band that the label had ever approached), ensuring a catapult point for their already impressive ascension in name recognition. Now, the band’s riding a wave of acclaim for their first effort for the label: Predatory Headlights.

Recorded largely at The BFG, like a lot of their previous work, Predatory Headlights thrives on subversion and challenging limitations. From it’s impressive scope (the record’s 25 songs and nearly 80 minutes in length) to the record’s boldest works, it’s an extraordinary feat of not only artistry but endurance. As alive as Predatory Headlights can sound and feel, it also comes off as weathered; a very natural byproduct of the band’s Wisconsin environment.

It’s through that relative bleakness where Tenement’s consistently found novelistic inspiration, narrowing in on both the mundane and the minute with a deceptively sharp eye. Butchers, sidewalk cracks, broken homes, ants, flies, degenerates, criminals, and people who are just trying all show up various times throughout the band’s discography and no collection’s ever placed a greater emphasis on that subtle narrative through-line than Predatory Headlights.

Tales of hurt, heartbreak, loss, and unfettered resilience dominate the double album’s intimidating span, rendering it an occasionally challenging listen due to the overwhelming amount of filth that the band so readily (and possibly bravely) presents. It’s a trait that seeps over into the nuanced production- a task capably handled by both guitarist/vocalist Amos Pitsch and Wisconsin mainstay Justin Perkins. For all the dirt, though, there are a few transcendental moments of sweetness, like the absolutely gorgeous string arrangement in the outro of the piano-driven front-half highlight “Ants + Flies” or the Sheer Mag-like aesthetics of the ensuing track, “Garden of Secrecy”.

Finding the perfect balance between their intrinsically rough-hewn nature and a newfound vulnerability winds up serving Predatory Headlights well, creating a dynamic compelling enough to create a considerable pull. Aiding that are the songs where Tenement really gets to embrace their more free-form tendencies. For years, the trio have ended their sets with piercing noise excursions and harbor a wealth of knowledge in relation to free jazz, something that’s never been more clearly evidenced than on the record’s most divisive track, “A Frightening Place For Normal People”.

On this track- more than any other the band’s ever released- Tenement indulge themselves with startling conviction and it pays off. A few recent reviews have found “A Frightening Place For Normal People” the record’s most problematic track; they’re missing the point. Tenement as a band have never strove to adhere to what’s expected, they’ve always worked towards a complete dismantling of their limitations.

By intentionally throwing a prolonged left curve (and doing it so late in the record), a lot of people being put off is to be expected but there’s no better litmus test for the places Tenement are headed than (the very aptly titled) “A Frightening Place For Normal People”. By continuously exploring- and expanding- their boundaries outside traditional and/or conventional means, they’re following in the paths of composers like John Cage, Cecil Taylor,  and the late Ornette Coleman, trusting their listeners to be adventurous- and capable- enough to meet them with more than just a faint inkling of critical thought.

That sense of wonderment and exploration is likely Predatory Headlights‘ strongest asset, ensuring that both the band and record never sacrifice too much momentum even with stretches that lean more towards the structure of a singles compilation (which isn’t saying much; a Tenement singles compilation would be more affirming than most bands’ full efforts).

None of the songs on Predatory Headlights sound like the band’s coasting on their enviable talent, instead most carry the sound of a band pushing themselves to achieve something greater than their past work and frequently succeeding. A dominant handful sound vibrant and incredibly inspired; there’s never a weak moment in the midst of the shambolic chaos the band’s willed into existence. Auxiliary arrangements only enhance Predatory Headlights‘ sense of individualism, providing guitarist/vocalist Amos Pitsch with a deeply impressive showcase as a composer alongside the band’s consistently powerful rhythm section (consisting of bassist Jesse Ponkamo and drummer Eric Mayer).

On the whole, Predatory Headlights highlights every facet of the band’s enviably extensive strengths. Atmospheric, propulsive, severe, and more than a little manic, it contains the breadth of Tenement. From the obvious influences that split the difference between punk and pop without sacrificing any integrity (The Figgs and Hickey definitely come to mind) to the artists that refused to bend to conventionality (Albert Ayler, Erik Satie) to the prevailing sense of a hard-won DIY ethos that’s been at the core of the band from the beginning, Predatory Headlights is a shockingly complete look at one of what may very well be the most important bands working today.

Predatory Headlights isn’t a lapse in judgment, it’s far too carefully structured and meticulous to be lost to oversight. While it might be an unintentional challenge, it’s most certainly a statement release. Tenement, after years of deserving the national spotlight, have arrived. They’re not going to cater to easy expectations, they’re going to continue eschewing gloss in favor of celebrating the murk of America’s lower-middle class, relentlessly turning things perceived or regarded as ugly into something tantalizing and beautiful (I’ve compared Pitsch’s vision of America to John Steinbeck multiple times over but the comparison’s never felt more warranted than it is here).

Reviews from high-profile publications like the New York Times and Pitchfork aren’t going to change the band’s modus operandi; Tenement are still very much a band that will play basements and go out of their way to help younger bands. More than anything, though, Predatory Headlights has me convinced that Tenement aren’t just part of the new face of punk- they’re the face of punk to come.

Listen to Predatory Headlights on Spotify here and watch the complete collection of videos I’ve shot of the band over the years below. For those of you in the New York City area, Tenement will be playing with Big Zit, Ivy, Nancy, and Warthog at The Acheron and their live set’s not one to be missed. You can purchase tickets for the show here. Predatory Headlights can be ordered directly from Don Giovanni here.

 

Tenement – Curtains Closed (Stream)

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Tenement have been more fundamental to the existence of this site than just about any other band currently going. Booking the band before they had any kind of physical record out was something I wrote about in detail in a piece that was included in the zine that came as an insert for the band’s recent early material compilation, Bruised Music, Volume 1. It was the first time I’d interacted with Tenement and that show remains one of my all-time favorites because of how thoroughly it reinforced that this was the kind of music I wanted to be involved with and support in any way I possibly could. After that show, the band repaid me in kind, time and time again, by booking the admittedly not-great band I was playing in at the time to play the venue they called home: The BFG.

At about an hour’s drive, it became something of haven, accessible and ceaselessly important to my musical development. It was through that venue I got to experience a full immersion into DIY culture, something that came equipped with authority conflict, a commendably defiant spirit, empathy, compassion, and a murderer’s row of great bills. The Figgs in a living room, Screaming Females, Sundials, Used Kids, Dead Dog, Little Lungs, and so many others in a basement, flyers covering up the majority of the house’s wall space, a Tom’s Drive-In across the street, and a dog with an American flag bandanna all became sights that felt like home. An insane assortment of records, everything from deep-cut free jazz to vintage soul to powerviolence, littered the place. One of my favorite sights, though, was the dusty, barely-tuned piano near the entrance to the basement.

That piano has appeared on multiple Tenement songs throughout the years (most notably the controversial “Medical Curiosity“, “The Cage That Keeps You In“, and the flipside of the Blind Wink cassette) and Predatory Highlights makes sure it’s not an instrument that’s not going to be leaving the band’s palette. While it may or may not be the same piano (it certainly sounds like it), it does have a similar beaten-down quality that complements the band’s ethos to a tee. Tenement is, above all else, a band hell-bent on celebrating life’s minutiae. The overlooked, the undesired, the inessential, and providing those things with such a sharp focus that they become something extraordinary. It can be the subject of a song or it can be an abused piano but Tenement, without fail, is able to embrace what most would consider flaws and shape them into something staggeringly beautiful.

It’s the note that “Curtains Closed”- their just-unveiled additional glimpse at Predatory Highlights– starts on (joined by some high-impact hand claps) and it’s one that’s sustained through the song. Amos Pitsch, the band’s guitarist/vocalist, artist, and driving creative force, sings with as much conviction as ever while the band’s music, which has long eschewed punk’s more traditional trappings for something far more adventurous, surges underneath his vocals. Pitsch has always belonged to a tier of songwriters whose work is informed more heavily by novelists than any other type of writer. Opening with a line like “Paper snowflakes on fire/seven deaths in a row/they burn up together” ensures that’s not something that’s likely to change, even as the band’s musicality continues to separate further from conventionality (which can also be attributed to the off-kilter approaches of the band’s rhythm section- made up of bassist/poet Jesse Ponkamo and drummer Eric Mayer- who remain one of the best units currently in operation).

For close to eight years now, this band’s been the very best the state of Wisconsin has had to offer and they’ve somehow managed to continuously improve. Evolving into something that both honors their past and opens up their future. Titus Andronicus’ monstrous double album may have the lion’s share of the attention now but don’t make the mistake of overlooking Predatory Highlights while its flame threatens to overtake the shadows where its been flickering for years. At 25 tracks, this is the most ambitious work of Tenement’s career- and if “Dull Joy” and “Curtains Closed” are anything to go by, it certainly seems like it will be their very best (as well as their defining moment).

As the band continue to pile on their willful disregard for genre expectations, the more exhilarating they become and that disregard seems to have hit a fever pitch without sacrificing any of the accessibility that made them so easy to identify with  from the beginning. Now, more than ever, Tenement are a band that deserves as much attention as humanly possible- and “Curtains Closed”, brightly damaged melody and all, takes them a step closer to receiving the kind of recognition they’ve always deserved.

Listen to “Curtains Closed” below and pre-order Predatory Highlights before its June 2 release from Don Giovanni here.

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Tenement – Dull Joy (Stream)

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Predatory Highlights. June 2. Doon giovanni Records. We’ll get to all of this shortly but first, a recap, as it’s been some time since the last non-Watch This post ran on this site. Coming up over the next few days will be a run of songs and videos focusing on some of the best of what’s emerged since the start of this month. Each of the highlighted songs will come equipped with no less than 10 others worth hearing in the accompanying post(s). Up first: “Idiot“, an extraordinary laid-back basement pop tune from Dustin Lovelis’ upcoming Dimensions. There was also the The Go! Team’s revitalized, energetic “Ye Ye Yamaha“, Torres’ unpredictably frenetic “Cowboy Guilt” (furthering Sprinter‘s album of the year potential), PINS’ jaunty “Young Girls“, and Blonde Elvis’ fired up powerpop gem “Oh Mary“. To top everything off there was Fraternal Twins’ slow-burning “Skin Gets Hot“, The Japanese House’s hypnotic “Sister“, KEN Mode’s furious “These Tight Jeans“, No Joy’s hazy “Moon In My Mouth“, and The Lagoonas’ fiery basement punk gut-punch, “Color Spectrum“. While, as always, every single one of these tracks is worthy of a high investment level, the headline goes to a band that’s now intrinsically tied to this site: Tenement.

Before diving into the dissection of yesterday’s big news surrounding the band’s upcoming release, it’s worth noting (on a very personal level) that in my time writing, few things have meant more to me than being able to contribute a piece for the zine insert that came equipped with Bruised Music: Volume 1, the band’s collection of earlier material that came out last month. Tenement are a band that have meant varying degrees to various people but they’ve managed to affect my life for what’s nearing ten years through both their music and their continued kindness. I grew up alongside their progression and they’re directly responsible for introducing me to the greater DIY scene that this site was built to celebrate (which is a space that may not even exist without that influence). They’re the first band I can remember booking and they’re a band I’ve been referring to as “Wisconsin’s best band” since the first time I saw them live- so, naturally, their upcoming record’s been one I’ve been tracking closely. Yesterday, the trio blew the lid off of that record- which has been meticulously shaped over the course of the past three years- via a typically incredible AV Club premiere that came loaded with details.

Predatory Highlights will be released on June 2 via the band’s (relatively) new home, the increasingly vaunted Don Giovanni Records. It will be a double-album. It’s set to contain both the band’s towering pop sensibilities that Napalm Dream zeroed in on while also accentuating the curious experiments that provided Blind Wink with an immediate cult classic aesthetic. In short, Predatory Highlights will be the band’s most ambitious- and most visible- release to date. Kicking off its campaign with a track as immensely accessible as “Dull Joy” is a brilliant strategic move as it encapsulates the band’s most immediate elements while hinting at the stranger terrain they’re capable of covering. As much as ever, guitarist/vocalist Amos Pitsch is in fine form both lyrically and musically- the song structure’s bold, the chord progressions are thrillingly inventive, and the lyric copy still reads like classic, downtrodden Americana.

While most of it will strike listeners who are familiar with the band as vintage Tenement, they still find room for a curveball- and that moment provides “Dull Joy” it’s most exhilarating moment. After the band locks into its standard basement pop/hardcore/power punk groove, they launch into a bridge that goes into full-blown r&b/pop mode, complete with falsetto. For any other band, a moment that conventional would seem rote but here, it adds a new dimension to the band’s already staggering depth. Accentuating the impact of Pitsch’s characteristically brilliant turn-in is yet another formidable display of intuitive talent from the band’s rhythm section- bassist Jesse Ponkamo and drummer Eric Mayer- which remains one of the best currently operating. Everything comes together on “Dull Joy” to not only prove that Tenement’s continuously raising their own otherwise unreachable bar but that they’ve also still got plenty of tricks up their sleeves. It may still be early and this may be the very first glimpse of Predatory Highlight but I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that Tenement could have a future classic on their hands with what looks to be a monumental release. If it doesn’t wind up near the very top of this site’s Albums of the Year list when December rolls around, no one will be more surprised than me.

Listen to “Dull Joy” below and pre-order Predatory Highlights from Don Giovanni here.

Tenement – Morning Mouth (Stream)

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Over the course of my interest in music, particularly music that resided within the confines of DIY, no band’s meant more to me than Tenement. Back when the band spent their time running shows out of the sorely-missed BFG house, I’d be there at every possible opportunity- but that’s skipping ahead of the beginnings of the story. Back in 2008, I booked Tenement to play a small coffee shop that frequently hosted shows on not much more than a whim. It was one of the first shows I ever had a hand in booking and it immediately became one of the most memorable- not just for that reason- but because what Tenement left up on that small stage (one they invited the entire crowd onto) was something I’d spent years looking for: a band more punk than pop who were at least somewhat defined by a sense of well-informed literacy.

In subsequent reviews (across various publications) that I wrote about Tenement’s music, I’d frequently compare guitarist/vocalist Amos Pitsch’s exacting sense of detailed Americana to authors like John Steinbeck. In lyric copy, Pitsch frequently zeroes in on the mundane aspects of everyday life that too frequently go unexamined (and, subsequently, uncelebrated). While this is an aspect of the band’s music that’s gained an unbelievable amount of clarity over the years, its characteristically humble beginnings can be heard in songs like the fiery “Morning Mouth”, which is one of a handful of songs the band’s remastered for an upcoming early music compilation entitled Bruised Music: Vol. 1. Incidentally, “Morning Mouth” was the second song I ever saw the band live- and the one that immediately convinced me I had a new favorite band.

Spending some time at The BFG always reaffirmed my earliest suspicious about Tenement after that show- the band’s versatility was shaped in part by their extremely diverse listening habits. It was impossible to spend thirty seconds flipping through any one of the thousands of releases that littered that house and not jump from 80’s hardcore to free jazz session recordings to sludge to the golden era of soul, all of which would be directly underneath an unending murderer’s row of killer flyers for (increasingly strong) bills that the house hosted. It evoked the ideal of the American melting pot more than just a little and, in a way, furthered the band’s identity. All of that, the feeling of sense and place, comes back as acutely as possible when revisiting a song like “Morning Mouth”- it’s undeniably indicative of the promise Tenement continues to fulfill and exceed while remaining a powerhouse in its own right.

Surprisingly intricate passages of “Morning Mouth”, which was originally released on the False Teeth 7″, revealed the band’s enviable talents at an early stage of their career while also betraying the band’s songwriting mastery. Hooks followed hooks, always with the momentum of a sledgehammer blow to the gut, while the band seemed to be on the verge of spiraling towards an unimaginable ascension. Burning bridges, a keen sense of surroundings, and an absolutely vicious musical performance are some of the more defining elements of “Morning Mouth”, which remains the warning shot that convinced me that Wisconsin had a band worthy of staggering levels of admiration. It may not have been the band’s only early warning shot but it remains one that holds a significant amount of power to this day. Who knew indulging nostalgia could be so invigorating?

Watch that early performance on a stage full of people below, listen to the Stereogum premiere of the remaster here, and pre-order Bruised Music: Vol. 1 from Grave Mistake (in collaboration with Toxic Pop) here.

Tenement at Mickey’s Tavern – 9/9/14 (Pictorial Review, Live Video)

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To get this out of the way at the top: there are very few bands that mean as much to me as Tenement. Without the support of that band when I was starting to do things like book and play shows, I probably wouldn’t have been affected as much by the DIY-centric artists and spaces that Heartbreaking Bravery was designed to bring into focus and celebrate. They’re a band that I’ve been filming fairly consistently over the course of the last six and a half years with an increasing amount of admiration. I’d book them to play shows in my city; they’d return the favor and invite the band I was playing in at the time to drive an hour to play their basement (The BFG) and, in doing so, opened a cultural door that allowed me to invest in the community shared by the other bands that played there. A few of the bands that wound up playing The BFG had a massive effect on my musical growth and now regularly snag features on this site- Swearin’, Screaming Females, The Hussy, Sundials, Delay, and an impressive selection of other bands that now populate labels like Don Giovanni, Dead Broke, and Salinas. Whether I was just fortunate enough to be at (or play on) the right shows, I’ll never know, but the amount of support and easy camaraderie surrounding the bulk of those shows was something that made me feel like I’d found a home.

Over the course of those early years- and on the back of playing host to consistently strong bills and relentless touring- Tenement began to build their reputation as one of the Midwest’s best bands. Amos Pitsch, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, had spent more time behind a kit as the drummer for Social Classics, than writing songs in front of it. While at that point, it was already clear Pitsch was a preternaturally gifted musician, it was likely difficult to know what to expect. Unsurprisingly, the most visible role in a band was one that felt naturally suited to Pitsch- and, importantly, allowed him to more fully demonstrate his music’s personality. Lyricists who are characterized more by novelists than other songwriters tend to be the ones that feel the most worthy of acclaim and Pitsch falls squarely into that category. Utilizing a wealth of musical knowledge and integrating it into stanzas and vignettes with a literary grounding, Pitsch has been able to create a sound that’s as influenced by John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner as it is Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr., Hickey, and The Figgs (who once played a very memorable set in The BFG’s living room).

There’s an additional allowance for the abstract that helps further differentiate Tenement from other bands that are attempting to play their hands at similar combinations, which has caused both emphatic celebration from some sets and scathing derision from others (the latter usually tends towards the genre-specific). After years of touring and playing host (before The BFG was forced to cease their venue operations), word started to spread pretty quickly and the band was able to leave with another fiercely-loved WI act, Holy Shit!, for a fairly lengthy tour in Japan. During their time spent in Japan, they played with two of Japan’s finest basement pop acts: Sanhose and Your Pest Band. Fortunately, both of those bands wound up finding their way Stateside not too long after that tour ended, allowing the possibility of all three bands playing a show on Tuesday night at Mickey’s Tavern in Madison, WI.

Mickey’s has long been a staple of Madison’s live music scene, consistently booking shows that would have made sense at a place like The BFG. The fact that it’s small plays well to the bands that have a fondness for eardrum-shattering volume levels and to the people who actively seek out more intimate settings. It’s essentially a 21+ basement venue with proper business licensing. All of which meant that it was a perfect fit for the night’s bill. Riff-happy trio Sanhose played first, going full-speed from the outset and only pausing to adjust or add extra weight to the cinder block positioned in front of the bass drum to prevent the whole thing from toppling over. While that issue was eventually solved by having a friend leave a foot planted firmly into the block while they played, Sanhose couldn’t bother to be too distracted by it. All throughout their set, there was a very palpable sense that the band loved to simply play their music- which wound up being a great reminder that earnestness in punk-leaning music isn’t completely dead. From 20-second blitzes to three-minute anthems, Sanhose left just about everything they had at Mickey’s and got the night off to an excellent start.

Considering Your Pest Band has most of their discography available at any major punk distro worth their salt, it’s a relatively safe bet to say that they’ve built themselves a strong following and a considerable reputation. Their music is frequently celebrated on both sides of the ocean and frequently featured in blogs, zines, and publications. Nearly all of their releases over the past few years have been heavily anticipated by very specific communities and subsequently met with acclaim- so, their live show had a fair bit to live up to. Any doubt those elements cast on high expectations were thoroughly obliterated by the end of their first song. It doesn’t matter what mode this band is in, whether it’s the unabashed 50’s pop stylings of “Time to Go” or the ferocious basement punk onslaught of “Dice“, they always tear into their songs with manic glee. Those efforts are doubled live. Every member of Your Pest Band was constantly in motion during their songs, working themselves into a sweat as they grew more frenzied. Towards the end of a set that was graciously spread throughout their seriously impressive discography, it seemed like they were practically jumping out of their own skin, totally alive and incredibly impassioned before ending it all with one of the strongest performances of the evening (which can be seen below).

Tenement played last (likely to ensure as many people as possible were there for Sanhose and Your Pest Band) and tore through a set of songs that they’ve now been playing for about two years. Not that it mattered or worked to their detriment- the songs that they’ve been playing are some of the best songs in any genre of those past few years and Tenement’s consistently been one of the best live bands that today’s music has had to offer. Any opportunity to see them play any song should be jumped at whenever possible and their set at Mickey’s wound up being yet another one that wound up giving additional weight to that opinion. Playing with the knowledge that this set would be one of the last they play before a scant few others (at least before their upcoming record’s released) may have pushed them to play with even more gusto than usual- or maybe they knew they had to be in their rarest form to follow Your Pest Band’s stunner of a set- but their short set found them hit a near-perfect stride. Blazing through material from their last two records with next to no pauses and a laser-sharp focus and intensity, they left absolutely no doubt that they are one of the best bands of the moment (for further proof of this, watch the supercharged set-ending take on “Stupid Werld” below). Factor in the fact they have a few records on the horizon (including their debut for Don Giovanni, which is projected for a Spring 2015 release) and will have a new set under their belt shortly after those releases and the set they offered up at Mickey’s instantly becomes one worth remembering. Tenement are nearing the end of a chapter in their career before bigger doors start opening for them- and they’re making sure that it ends on the right notes.

Sanhose, Your Pest Band, and Tenement will all be playing in Milwaukee (along with So Cow, Holy Shit!, and a handful of others) on Sunday, September 14. If at all possible, don’t miss it.

A photo gallery of all three bands can be seen below and videos from each band’s set can be viewed below that.

Enjoy.