Heartbreaking Bravery

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Tag: Napalm Dream

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.

Watch This: 2015, Vol. 1

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Familiar faces. Single Songs. Full sets. New bands. It’s been 15 weeks since the last Watch This ran on this site and that’s far, far too long. To help get things up to date, the next three days will see a trilogy of video mixtapes containing 25 of the best live clips to surface from 2015 so far. Next week, the installment will resume its normally paced functions- but for now, clear out some time and get lost in the exciting performances compiled in the embed below. Lean back, turn the volume up, breathe deep, and Watch This.

1. Waxahatchee – Under A Rock (Pitchfork)
2. Tenement – Dreaming Out Loud (Don Giovanni Records)
3. Crying – Sick (BreakThruRadio)
4. Beach Slang (NPR)
5. Speedy Ortiz – The Graduates (Pitchfork)
6. Francisco the Man – In the Corners (Audiotree)
7. Single Mothers – Overdose (Radio K)
8. Sleater-Kinney – Modern Girl (Sound Opinions)
9. Nude Beach + Jody Stephens – My Life Is Right (Don Giovanni Records)
10. Mutts – Five of a Kind (Audiotree)
11. Sun Club – Beauty Meat (Audiotree)
12. Crow Bait – Separate Stations (Don Giovanni Records)
13. Courtney Barnett – An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York (Pitchfork)
14. Matthew E. White – Rock & Roll Is Cold (The Current)
15. Makthaverskan – Witness (Pitchfork)
16. Chief Scout – Rollercoaster (Audiotree)
17. Mal Blum – San Cristóbal (Don Giovanni Records)
18. DYGL – Let’s Get Into Your Car (Out of Town Films)
19. American Aquarium – Losing Side of Twenty Five (Jam in the Van)
20. Charles Bradley – The World (Is Going Up In Flames) (Coachella)
21. Sue the Night – The Whale (3FM)
22. Kevin Devine – Bubblegum (Little Elephant)
23. Ride – Vapour Trail (Coachella)
24. The Dodos (KEXP)
25. Cloakroom – Lossed Over + Moon Funeral (Little Elephant)

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.

 


A Look at Burger Records and the Longevity of the Cassette Tape

Over time musical formats, like all things, evolve in one way or the other. We currently live in an age where it’s occasionally necessary to specify whether your release is a physical object. Album sales through the first nine months of the year were down 6.1% from 2012’s sales. Digital sales are also down. Vinyl is continuing a curious re-emergence, up 100% in sale volume over in the UK. Then there’s the perpetually-overlooked cassette tape charting its own unique path.

Considered painfully outdated by many, the truth is that the cassette never really disappeared. A perennial staple of the DIY music communities due to its cost-effectiveness, it’s been virtually impossible to get an accurate sales projection on as the majority of its sales seem to take place independetly. However, with some of the cultural focus shifting back over to the musical regions that most heavily embrace tape culture along with the balls-out risk of Cassette Store Day they’re back to being a common point of debate.

There are those that will endlessly champion the cassette and its merits, this very publication being one, and those who are completely baffled by anyone who’s interested in the format. Cassettes haven’t been as easily accessible as they are today since the peak of their popularity in the 90’s. When the mass consumption ebb switched to favoring the much sleeker CD, the cassette seemed all but buried. Cassette walkmans went from trend pieces to lost artifacts that seemed hopelessly out of touch. This cultural shift propelled the cassette to an outsider status that lent it a new context.

Unsurprisingly, the basement punk scene continued to latch onto the format and while the numbers of mass sales decreased, the independent business model for it held strong. Punk and hardcore bands as well as outsider pop, folk, and psych bands often only dealt in cassette releases simply because they became the most affordable option. A deep bond was formed between format and genre, each proving beneficial to the others aesthetics. Then, while the mp3 started to overtake the CD and vinyl began a surprising but entirely welcome comeback, tapes were left almost completely out of the cultural conversation.

In 1993 a Guitar Wolf demo tape convinced Eric Friedl to start a label to release the bands first record Wolf Rock!, that label, Goner, became one of punk’s most seminal since the ugly decline of SST. Friedl likely never paid the trajectory of tapes’ popularity any attention, continuing to release his artists music on the formats he/they saw fit. Even as the cassette turned into a surprisingly contentious topic, Goner consistently released them and anchored itself as one of the cornerstones in the formats strange history. As admirable as Goner’s works with cassettes were, at the start of the new millennium there was somethingt brewing on the west coast that would take the tape even further.

Two members of the much-beloved Fullerton, CA basement pop outfit Thee Makeout Party!, Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard, founded an independent record store and label in 2007, launching it officially two years later. Less than five years later their label, Burger Records, has become nearly synonymous with the word cassette. This year has proved to be one of Burger’s most prolific stretches, aided by an unexpected spike in interest for cassettes and the various basement punk sub-genres. While their collaborations with punk wunderkind Ty Segall may have lent some momentum to this, the label also experienced a greater amount of national coverage in 2013. Cassette Store Day certainly influenced some of the coverage but consistent reporting from scribes like Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, Noisey’s Zachary Lipez as well as a handful of articles from Stereogum’s Miles Bowe expanded Burger from a portion of the MRR set to the more indie-inclined crowds.

That crossover is where Burger has managed its biggest coup; for over four years the label has been releasing consistently impressive material that has equal appeal to both parties. Another coup; psych and surf influence litter the labels catalog, giving it a distinct west coast flavor, while also nicely syncing up with a growing demand for music that features either. All of these manage to intersect to provide the label with a legitimate identity apart from its near-refusal to release anything apart from cassettes (the label does occasionally release some vinyl, makes a select few of its releases available digitally, and even fewer available on CD). Burger’s ability to sustain a breakneck pace has been astounding and they’ve proven themselves as taste-makers in an impossibly short amount of time.

Looking at the amount of titles Burger has sold out is staggering, even considering their ace-in-the-hole model of release. Nearly everything the label presses to cassette is available once as a limited-run release, so if you missed out on Tenement’s Napalm Dream + Demos double-cassette, then you’ll likely have to keep both eyes peeled to a secondhand service like ebay. While some of their more popular releases do manage to get multiple re-pressings, it’s somewhat of a rarity. Burger’s also proved to be efficient at capitalizing on bands that seemed to be geared towards greater success, as they did with Tenement and as their currently doing with Seattle’s Big Eyes, having just recently provided a tape release for a record that’s already been out for months.

While cassettes still exist in abundance as several bands preferred mode of independent release, Burger seems keenly aware of the urgency created by a ‘get ’em before they’re gone’ kind of model. Their claims of starting their own movement don’t feel too far off base. Demand for their products were high enough to warrant Burgerama, the labels own self-curated music festival, Wiener Records- a subsidiary label, and the Burger Caravan of Stars tour that takes the central idea of Burgerama and condenses it into a smaller-scale nationwide version. They’ve created something far bigger than themselves and it’s paying off. Burger’s responsible for over 500 notable releases and more than half of those are currently no longer available.

Cassette Store Day brought a lot of issues to light and several people were left aghast, while it inspired local artists the world over to make their small contributions. Austin, TX troubadours Okkervil River took advantage of the nostalgic aspect of the cassette, releasing The Silver Gymnasium on the format. Burger Records understands the format and what it stands for. They’re the ones that know how many miles in a van a cassette can represent, how much cheap spilled beer went into making and celebrating one, how the slightly compressed sound quality can actually prove beneficial to the sound of particular artists, and the skip-resistant longevity of a cassette. They’re the ones that have been part of post-show basement cassette trades between local and touring acts. Burger Records knows who will fit and who will respond to the format most strongly.

Burger Records knows the cassette’s not dead and they’re going to keep it that way. Whether that’s a triumph, a statement, or a disgrace is anyone’s prerogative.  For a generation that’s involved in their movement, it exceeds simpler classifications and becomes a way of life. To Heartbreaking Bravery, it’s a life well worth living.