Tag Archives: albums

Music reviews: Gwen Stefani, Violent Femmes, Pete Yorn

GwenStefani Gwen Stefani :: ‘This Is What the Truth Feels Like’

Gwen Stefani’s new solo album is fun and catchy, with cute hooks, hopping beats and a a calm, cool voice. But after listening to it, you’re on to the next album.

This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani’s first solo album in 10 years, isn’t memorable or distinctive — an only-OK batch of pop tunes that don’t reveal much about Stefani.

Though the lyrical content of some of the songs is deep, the album sounds tailor-made for radio, and the songs lack in emotion, originality and personality — usually a specialty of Stefani’s. For all the talk that the album delves into her personal life, it’s hard to tell. The content, even when it’s about heartbreak and ex-husband Gavin Rossdale, has a bubble-gum feel. It’s as if Stefani’s hiding behind the songs’ beat and hook, and her vocal tonality is on cruise control throughout.

The project does have some highlights: “Send Me a Picture,” likely about boyfriend Blake Shelton, sounds more experimental. “Red Flags” and “Asking 4 It,” which features rapper Fetty Wap, are high points, too. But songs like “Naughty” and the singles “Used to Love You” and “Make Me Like You” sound as if another pop star could sing the tracks and you wouldn’t notice the difference. Holla back girl when you make your next album. (Mesfin Fekadu)

ViolentFemmesViolent Femmes :: ‘We Can Do Anything’

The Violent Femmes often sound like their old selves on We Can Do Anything, their ninth studio album and first since 2000. Singer/guitarist Gordon Gano and acoustic bass guitarist Brian Ritchie reunited in 2013 for a Coachella performance of their self-titled debut on the 30th anniversary of its release, having put aside the long feud sparked by Gano’s decision to allow the use of their biggest hit “Blister in the Sun” in a fast food commercial.

Habitual alternation between aggression and vulnerability is a hallmark of the local group’s sound as well as their personalities, and it’s on display frequently in We Can Do Anything. “What You Really Mean” is a real standout, a tender tune about commitment written by Gano’s sister, Cynthia Gayneau. “Holy Ghost” could have fit on the band’s classic debut and sounds like Lou Reed dropped by to sing lead.

Not everything gels. The accordion-driven “I Could Be Anything” is goofy and “Issues” may be too overwrought even for those with an “it’s complicated” relationship status.

Despite three co-writes (rare for Gano), and songs rescued after the long hiatus from decades-old demo cassettes, We Can Do Anything lasts just 31 minutes. It’s quality time. Hopefully the Femmes will be back with another, even better encore. (Pablo Gorodni)

PeteYornPete Yorn :: ‘ArrangingTime’

Pete Yorn returns after an extended hiatus with ArrangingTime, his sixth and lushest solo studio album since his 2001 debut. ArrangingTime shares more than just space bar anemia with his debut, musicforthemorningafter. Meticulous producer R. Walt Vincent is back on half of the 12 tracks, and helps out on a wide range of instruments.

Lyrically, there’s a lot of angst, hardly a healthy relationship in sight and the unease can be overwhelming. The melodies are sweet but it’s a bitter delicacy. “Halifax” begins like early R.E.M., “Lost Weekend” has an 80’s synth bass, the melody soars on “In Your Head” and “Screaming at the Setting Sun” is practically danceable, as is “Tomorrow.”

ArrangingTime is Yorn’s debut for Capitol Records, though in this age of hyper-consolidation among labels that may not mean as much as before. What matters more is that Yorn still writes splendid songs, even when his characters are miserable. (Pablo Gorondi)

Top songs, albums on iTunes

The top 10 songs and albums on the iTunes Store, according to iTunes’ Official Music Charts.

Top Songs

  1. 7 Years, Lukas Graham
  2. Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande
  3. NO, Meghan Trainor
  4. Work (feat. Drake), Rihanna
  5. My House, Flo Rida
  6. Stressed Out, twenty one pilots
  7. PILLOWTALK, ZAYN
  8. I Took a Pill in Ibiza, Mike Posner
  9. Love Yourself, Justin Bieber
  10. YOUTH, Troye Sivan
7 Years, Lukas Graham tops on itunes
At the top of the chart on iTunes. — PHOTO: Courtesy

Top Albums on iTunes

  1. Have It All (Live), Bethel Music
  2. This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Gwen Stefani
  3. 3001: A Laced Odyssey, Flatbush Zombies
  4. untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar
  5. Chapter 1 – EP, Kane Brown
  6. Something Beautiful, Jordan Smith
  7. Traveller, Chris Stapleton
  8. 25, Adele
  9. Incarnate , Killswitch Engage
  10. Hamilton (Original Broadway Cast Recording), Various Artists

— from Apple Inc.

New music: Coldplay, Troye Sivan, Tom Jones, Babyface

Coldplay :: ‘A Head Full of Dreams’

To even the most hardcore Coldplay fans, last year’s Ghost Stories, put together in the wake of Chris Martin’s breakup with Gwyneth Paltrow, might have sounded a little mopey. The one exception was the band’s collaboration with Avicii, “A Sky Full of Stars,” a top 10 hit that pointed in a more upbeat direction for the future. That moment is here on A Head Full of Dreams. With pop-soul producers StarGate in tow, songs like “Fun” and “Hymn for the Weekend” lift us up again. Paltrow even makes a guest appearance on “Everglow,” seemingly to let us know all is OK going forward. Don’t look for deep revelations about life here — this album doesn’t have the power of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. But if you want some reassurance that the sun will come out after hard times, Coldplay is again your band.

Troye Sivan :: ‘Blue Neighbourhood’

Australia’s Troye Sivan is a 20-year-old gay man who grew up in a Jewish community in Perth and came out at age 15. That personal experience underlines the emotional gravity of the glistening pop music on his debut album. He has been praised by the likes of Taylor Swift and Sam Smith, and for good reason. If you fell in love with Lorde’s music and are looking for where to turn next, Blue Neighbourhood is a good option. The chilliness of the musical arrangements on songs like “Heaven” live in contrast to the deeply human impact of the lyrics: “Without losing a piece of me, how do I get to heaven?” Troye Sivan is a name to remember.

Tom Jones :: ‘Long Lost Suitcase’

Set aside any preconceived notions you might hold about legendary Welsh pop crooner Tom Jones. Long Lost Suitcase is the third album he has released since 2010 that digs deep into blues-infused roots. The opener “Opportunity to Cry” gives hints to what Elvis Presley might have sounded like if he lived into his 70s, and Jones even covers Gillian Welch’s “Elvis Presley Blues.” The arrangements here are subtle and put the spotlight squarely on Jones’ rich, resonant voice. On some songs, the showman in Jones milks the emotion for maximum dramatic effect, such as the nearly a cappella “He Was a Friend of Mine.” However, he is probably at his best with the simple chug of uptempo album closer “Raise a Ruckus.”

Babyface :: ‘Return Of the Tender Lover’

Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds first gained success in the music industry outside the spotlight, as a keyboard player, songwriter and producer. When he did step to the front of the stage in 1989 with the album Tender Lover, he earned multi-platinum success and top 10 pop smashes like “It’s No Crime” and “Whip Appeal.” It has been 10 years since his last solo album of original material. Despite the title, Return of the Tender Lover is not a reprise of the previous release. Instead, it sounds more like an effort to take the spirit of the original and apply it to contemporary smooth R&B sounds. The result is a pleasure to hear. The album kicks off with the joyful “We’ve Got Love” and elsewhere includes reunions with past collaborators El DeBarge and the vocal group After 7. This album is your contemporary soundtrack to a romantic winter night with the one you love.

Year in Review: Top albums in 2015

R&B Album of the Year: Kendrick Lamar. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’

Appearing at the height of national discussion about police violence targeting black people, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a messy and powerful document about the state of being black in America. At times it is so dense it feels practically unlistenable. At other times, you may find yourself singing along to a chorus. Lamar delivered on the promise of his debut album and his work riveted attention like few other albums in 2015. 

Even if you believe you do not like hip-hop, I encourage you to listen to this album. It has much to say, and songs like “King Kunta” and “i” will have an emotional impact while remaining accessible enough for most pop audiences. They may encourage you to dig deeper, finding stories like that of “How Much a Dollar Cost” or the head-on confrontation of racism in “The Blacker the Berry.”

Honorable mentions deservedly go to Drake and Miguel. Drake’s surprise release If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late depicts the Canadian rapper at his peak. Until Adele came along, it was the biggest album of 2015. The gift of Drake is how he digs deep into his own personal experiences with an artful and often endearingly catchy, context. He has never sounded as idiosyncratic as on this collection of songs, and that’s a very good thing.

Miguel’s eagerly awaited third album Wildheart blurs the lines between R&B and psychedelic rock, and, at times, it is almost as difficult to get a handle on that sound. Keep Jimi Hendrix in the back of your mind and you’ll be fine; his influence is prominent. Perhaps more than most major album releases this year, Wildheart sounds like a multi-faceted journey into the artist’s soul.

Pop Album of the Year: Adele, ‘25’

Album quality and massive international commercial appeal do not always go hand in hand. Happily, in the case of Adele’s third album 25, they do. 

A strong argument could be made that no solo artist has ever kicked off a career with three consecutive albums that maintain such consistently high quality as Adele’s 19, 21 and 25.

On 25, she surrounds herself with such stellar collaborators as Max Martin, Greg Kurstin and Bruno Mars, but it is Adele’s voice that shines through clear and true.

The theme of the album this time around is the strength found when the shock and immediate pain of a failed relationship fade. However, like all of Adele’s work, the broader theme is the intimate emotional experience of relationships. 

From the moment she kicks off the album with the words, “Hello, it’s me,” on her massive No. 1 pop hit single “Hello” to “Sweetest Devotion’s” swaying, confident, “I wasn’t ready then, I’m ready now,” there is a bracing sense of personal and musical confidence on 25. 

Honorable mentions go to The Weeknd and Madonna. Some may argue that Beauty Behind the Madness by Canadian artist Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, is most properly an R&B album, but it is in songs like the Max Martin collaboration “Can’t Feel My Face,” inspired by the best pop instincts of Michael Jackson, that his work truly soars. This album brought a very promising rising artist to much-deserved widespread attention.

Madonna’s Rebel Heart is the kind of album many past pop kings and queens would like to make in their late 50s. It is her best in 15 years and she sounds free and optimistic about the future. The album acknowledges her glorious past well and is an outstanding example of a pop artist aging gracefully. 

Rock Album of the Year: Courtney Barnett ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’

The debut album from 28-year-old Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett earned her a surprising but well-deserved Grammy Award nomination for Best New Artist. She combines relentlessly infectious garage rock riffs with deadpan lyrics that sparkle with wit and intelligence.

There is nothing particularly new in Courtney Barnett’s approach. What is arresting is how “right” this all sounds. 

Songs like her breakthrough “Pedestrian At Best” get your attention with squealing guitar and thunderous drums, then launch into a flat vocal delivery drawing maximum attention to words like, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you. Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you.” 

Somewhere legends like Patti Smith are smiling when they listen to Courtney Barnett. She is proof that while rock may not be in the spotlight as often today, it is still alive and kicking as fiercely as ever.

Honorable mentions in the rock category go to Coldplay and Fall Out Boy. Taken together, the bands represent the peak of commercial success for rock in today’s popular music climate. Coldplay’s recently released A Head Full of Dreams finds the band blurring boundaries between rock and danceable pop, collaborating with producers StarGate and including guest appearances from Beyoncé and Tove Lo. The result is the big, warm, hopeful sound we have come to expect from Coldplay. The moodiness of last year’s Ghost Stories has given way to songs like “Everglow,” a hymn to connections that remain even after the breakup of a romantic relationship.

Fall Out Boy proved 2013’s comeback was no fluke on American Beauty / American Psycho. From the infusion of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” into the bombastic top 10 hit “Centuries” to the good-humored sampling of The Munsters’ theme song in “Uma Thurman,” the album pulls together pop culture references in a good-natured stew of catchy riffs and sing-a-long choruses.

3rd time charms again for Testa Rosa

“Pretty” is not an adjective that tends to apply to the Milwaukee music scene, but it’s one that has been leveled at — and embraced by — pop rock band Testa Rosa more than once. Betty Blexud-Strigens and Damian Strigens, the couple who lead the band, haven’t lost any of that shine as they gear up for the release of their third album. But the appropriately titled Testa Rosa III is tempered by a deeper, darker and denser sound than Testa Rosa has dabbled with in the past.

With Blexud-Strigens singing lead and serving as the group’s primary songwriter and Strigens playing lead guitar and producing instrumental arrangements in studio, Testa Rosa released their self-titled debut in 2007 to stellar reviews. Their 2011 follow-up, Testa Rosa II, was noted for expanding the group’s sound, keeping the pop catchy while providing a more varied listening experience.

Blexud-Strigens’ striking voice has always reminded me of Karen Carpenter, a beautiful instrument infused with darker undertones. It’s a comparison she agrees with, although she would add the voices of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and ABBA’s Frida Lyngstad. Blexud-Strigens says the Carpenters’ songs were the first she and her sister sang along with while growing up, and while she was writing III, she was “engulfed” in Little Girl Blue, a biography of Karen Carpenter.

III has a more local influence as well. Blexud-Strigens was chosen in 2014 to curate Alverno Presents’ Smith Uncovered show, a celebration of punk icon Patti Smith featuring re-interpretations of her greatest songs by local musicians. 

Testa Rosa performed the song “Frederick” from Patti Smith’s 1979 album Wave and Blexud-Strigens found herself increasingly influenced by the artist’s work. She says two songs on III owe their origins to Smith Uncovered. One, “Golden Boat,” is more indirect, inspired by the poem “The Drunken Boat” by Arthur Rimbaud, who heavily influenced Smith’s work.

The other, “The Summer of We Three,” is a reference to the Smith song “We Three.” Blexud-Strigens says, “I was trying to be more poetic and dark and I was thinking of Patti a lot when I wrote it.”

The richer, darker arrangements on III can be attributed to Strigens’ influence. He says he likes the sound “a little more aggressive.” By contrast, Blexud-Strigens’ arrangements tend to be “more simple pop.” 

Strigens also is quick to point out the other musicians essential to III. Keyboardist Nick Berg, who also plays with Strigens in Americana band Conrad Plymouth, has joined Testa Rosa for III, adding atmospheric synth washes and studio engineering skills. Among other musicians who play on the album are cello player Janet Schiff and Milwaukee’s Ben Lester, currently touring with Tallest Man on Earth on pedal steel.

At heart, Testa Rosa remains distinctively a Wisconsin band, as reflected in local references in at least three of the songs on the new album. 

The song “Window Breaker” is about Mary Sweeney, a woman immortalized in the book and film Wisconsin Death Trip, who distinguished herself through, and was frequently jailed for, her personal “sport” of breaking windows. The song “Irvine” grew out of Blexud-Strigens’ childhood memories of Chippewa Falls’ Irvine Park before morphing into a song about California’s city of Irvine. Finally, “Bad Wolf,” the single the band released last year and the track that kicks off the album, gives an impressionistic view of polarizing Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

One of the most difficult questions for the couple to answer was a simple one: How would you describe the sound of Testa Rosa? The phrase that finally seemed the most evocative was Blexud-Strigens’: “AM pop radio playing in some kind of urban ruin.” 

If you have fond memories of the music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the “golden age of studio recording,” you will find much to like in the music of Testa Rosa. However, fans of contemporary alternative rock should also find themselves enthralled by the rich textures of the band’s sound on III.

ON STAGE

Testa Rosa will celebrate Testa Rosa III at an album release party Aug. 29 at 9 p.m. at Shank Hall, 1434 N. Farwell Ave. Tickets are $10. Visit shankhall.com to order.



Music reviews: | Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, Rhiannon Giddens

Sufjan Stevens :: ‘Carrie & Lowell’

Not familiar with Sufjan Stevens yet? Start your exploration with “Carrie & Lowell.” Arguably the most powerful record released thus far in 2015, the album explores the singer-songwriter’s grief and reflection following the death of his mother Carrie in 2012. Their relationship was difficult and complex at best, but that makes the album all the more startling and engaging. Recorded at Stevens’ home studio and released on his independent label Asthmatic Kitty (run by Stevens’ stepfather Lowell Brams) the album is sparce, even ghostly at times, with lyrics that are simply unforgettable. There is harrowing anger and shame here, but also plenty of love. “Carrie & Lowell” is an album to cherish.

Death Cab for Cutie :: ‘Kintsugi’

“Kintsugi” is a Japanese art form in which broken pottery is repaired with lacquer, making the cracks a part of the work. It’s also a fitting title for Death Cab for Cutie’s eighth album. Since the last release in 2011, founder Ben Gibbard divorced Zooey Deschanel and original guitarist Chris Walla has exited the band. “Kintsugi” embraces those signs of breakage, translating them into warmth and affecting emotion — most notably on opening song “No Room In Frame,” a gently galloping breakup song that slowly works its way into your heart, and the strong lead single “Black Sun.” But “Kintsugi” gets more disjointed as the album wanders on, shifting tones and tempos as if they’re off their groove and trying to find their way back. “Kintsugi” isn’t a bad album, and it’s a good transition, but it’s no “Transatlanticism.”

Rhiannon Giddens :: ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’

Rhiannon Giddens has already been successful with old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops and on the New Basement Tapes project, recording a previously lost trove of Dylan lyrics with the likes of Elvis Costello and Marcus Mumford. She steps into the spotlight on “Tomorrow Is My Turn,” covering female artists like Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and Nina Simone. She is at her strongest delivering the arresting field holler of “Waterboy,” a version of “Black is the Color” that sounds like contemporary hip hop, and with a mournful fiddle on “O Love Is Teasin’,” previously associated with “Mother of Folk” Jean Ritchie’s dulcimer. Giddens is proof American roots music is safe with a new generation.

Boz Scaggs :: ‘A Fool To Care’

Pop fans over 40 are likely familiar with Boz Scaggs’ late ‘70s classics “Low Down” and “Lido Shuffle.” Many are not aware that he is still recording, and his blue-eyed soul is as engaging as ever. “A Fool To Care” follows his well-received 2013 album of covers, “Memphis.” This copies the same format, with songs by Al Green, the Spinners and Curtis Mayfield included among the 12 tracks. It’s easy to sit back and relax with this album, enjoying the gentle grooves, Boz Scaggs’ tastefully spare guitar work and his timeless vocals.

New music: Meghan Trainor, Mark Ronson, Jukebox the Ghost

Meghan Trainor :: ‘Title’

With her major label debut Title, Meghan Trainor proves “All About That Bass” was no fluke. If you’re familiar with the chart-topping single, you already know the 21-year-old singer-songwriter is inspired by doo-wop and ’60s girl groups. Title mixes that inspiration with contemporary lyrics about female empowerment. Not everything works well, most notably Trainor’s stab at funk: “Bang Dem Sticks.” But follow-up single “Lips Are Movin’” and the self-deprecatingly humorous “Walkashame” more than make up for the low moments. Other standouts include the charmingly wistful “3 AM” and “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” with John Legend. Kudos to Epic Records for moving Trainor from the songwriters’ bench to the spotlight.

Mark Ronson :: ‘Uptown Special’

Though well-respected for his work with Amy Winehouse, British producer and artist Mark Ronson has not gained the appreciation his main work deserves stateside. Uptown Special should make him a household name. Much of the album slides into the groove mined by “Uptown Funk!,” with lead vocals by Bruno Mars. Three tracks go to vocalist Kevin Parker of Australia’s Tame Impala, while Andrew Wyatt of the Swedish pop group Miike Snow gets three of his own. And on “Feel Right,” rapper Mystikal delivers a blistering James Brown-inspired vocal. Uptown Special is a January gem that will appeal to serious audiophiles and mainstream pop fans alike.

Jukebox the Ghost :: ‘Jukebox the Ghost’

The quirky, clever, self-deprecating line, “I should have known right from the start that we were made for ending,” says a lot of what you need to know about Jukebox the Ghost. The pop rock band’s self-titled fourth album is packed full of memorable, piano-driven melodies and lyrics that are wise, funny and occasionally a bit sad. The melodies sink in quickly, only to let go when the next track unleashes its equally catchy chorus. Occasionally the band reaches for more anthemic territory — for instance, on “The Great Unknown,” or “When the Nights Get Long,” a catchy track reminiscent of Bastille. But generally Jukebox the Ghost doesn’t reach for the grand, charmingly remaining down to earth instead. 

The Soil & the Sun :: ‘Meridian’

Lead vocalist and guitarist Alex McGrath formed The Soil & the Sun with his wife Ashley in 2008, and the Grand Rapids, Michigan, group has since grown into a seven-member collective. There is something irresistibly gorgeous about Meridian, their debut LP. Its members accurately describe their sound as “experiential, orchestral, spiritual rock.” Lush vocals envelop the listener like lapping waves. Intricate percussion provides a base for dense string, guitar and oboe instrumentation. It’s an album you can get lost in, and a harbinger of a bright future. Catch the group live at Turner Hall on Jan. 21.

Mike Watt: The musical sailor on bass

The workday had ended and the nightlife at the San Pedro, California, art walk was just gearing up. Lumbering down in his white econo-van, Mike Watt, 56, looked more like an old sailor than punk legend and frontman of the pacesetting group Minutemen. His van has probably tallied more road years touring than members of younger bands have been alive.

Watt was dropping by to talk about his 53-stop tour, his new album and collaboration with Italian duo, Il Sogno del Marinaio (The Sailor’s Dream). After 35 years on the music scene, Watt is still Watt, down to his signature plaid shirt.

As his latest album, Canto Secondo, shows, the past is never far from Watt’s mind. The past forever rides shotgun in his econo-van (or “the boat” as he calls it), like the silver anchor around his neck.

Canto Secondo (Second Song) is an exploratory expression of this boat of memories. It is an assemblage of musical and artistic influences that reference improvisational jazz, 1970s rock and John Cage — with a dash of Charles Bukowski thrown into the mix.

Part of our conversation with Watt follows:

You’ve made this amazing array of friends in various styles of music, but you like to put these influences into a blender and out comes an album like Canto Segundo. I got into music to be with my friends. The influence of punk wasn’t a style. It was a state of mind. The influences on this album almost seem like they’re taken from Berthold Brecht or Dadaist art. 

Where is this coming from? The influences of the latest album and some of the other ones like the Minutemen, in a way, I’m coming back to my beginning. This is collaboration and I compose on the bass. I work in a semi-scripted way at the beginning and then build upon that. I like to leave plenty of room for this trio to invent around the bassline and words.

What kind of rules are you breaking musically with this album? My fundamentals are from rock ’n’ roll. I’ve been around too long and you know you can’t learn anything by being the boss. I want to learn from everything — the dream of the bard or Dante’s Inferno. I need the title to start before I write the songs. Bass is the greatest thing in the band. It’s still mysterious. The bassline in the music is the heart, the glue.

Tell me about some of the other influences on this current work. When I first heard John Coltrane I thought he was a punk rocker, I didn’t even know he was dead. Most of what I’ve learned has come from acutely listening to the music and playing with a bunch of people … and learning from everyone.

How do you stay creative as a musician? I’ve never had to submit a demo, never took tour money. You have to have core beliefs. I did 11 years at SST Records and had complete autonomy. I don’t have any nightmare big label stories.

How much of your work is autobiographical and how much is fiction? “The Engine Room” is a metaphor from my father. I use his life in the Navy. I like to use writers and painters for inspiration rather than taking riffs from other musicians. One album I used the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, his painting the World of Earthly Delights for my inspiration. When I was a kid I liked astronauts, dinosaurs and Bosch. Friends are like actors in the little plays of my life. I don’t want to be too social. I need people to inspire and encourage me, but I need to have my own space and San Pedro has been as much an influence as the people. It has allowed me to have certain autonomy.

You are kind of like Charles Bukowski. He once told me that “writing is for pretending.”

James Preston Allen is publisher of Random Lengths News, in which this interview first appeared.

ON STAGE

Mike Watt and Il Sogno del Marinaio perform at 8 p.m. on Sept. 29, at Madison’s High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave., Madison. Tickets are $15. Call 608-268-1122 or go to high-noon.com.

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Phox blends different genres with harmonious results

Bands generally work best when their members share a unity of vision.

Phox is the exception, in some ways. The Madison-based group is composed of six extremely different musicians, each pulling the band in different directions — toward folk, pop, soul, classical and everything in between. That might cause strife in many groups, but it’s created synergy in Phox, according to Matteo Roberts, one of the band’s founding members.

And it’s certainly helped the group find increasing success over the past few years.

“We all have amazingly disparate taste, style and prior experience, and I think it’s the melting down and combining of these elements that makes our sound,” Roberts says.

Although each of the sextet’s members has an instrumental specialty, they often explore each others’ parts while writing together. “I studied classically at Lawrence University, Jason (Krunnfusz) played in a hardcore metal band, Matt (Holmen) has his brain always ticking in ska chops … but our individual influences and styles cut through and form our sound naturally.”

The most prominent example is “Slow Motion,” the lead single off the group’s eponymously titled debut LP released in June — and its biggest hit yet. “Slow Motion” is, like Phox, hard to describe, kicking off with a country twang before dropping into trancey, melodic verses that evolve as they go, picking up an occasional jazz groove and even tossing a clarinet solo into the middle. No matter how the song zigs and zags, lead singer Monica Martin and her colleagues, including Zach Johnston and Davey Roberts, remain in tight harmony.

Yet Roberts calls “Slow Motion” a “bit of a freak accident, bless its heart.” He suggests its zig-zagging of genres is more the product of slamming together two different songs than the type of unified fusion that Phox seeks.

Roberts says the band strives for more mature and less eclectic songs, such as “Calico Man” and “Raspberry Seed,” both of which settle into a decidedly folk groove while pulling from chamber pop and acoustic influences.

“We’ve refined ourselves a bit,” Roberts says. “With so many members, it’s easy to let yourself get in the way of the song, so we have been tweaking some things in an attempt to be more dynamic performers, which means sometimes just shutting up and letting the song breathe.”

Roberts says the band formed shortly after each of its members returned to their hometown of Baraboo in 2010. The six of them had all had separate and varying relationships with each other, but they hadn’t performed together before forming Phox.

Some of them had little to no experience of being in a band at all — including Martin, who’d never sung in front of a crowd. Their first show was a disaster, Martin admits, prompting an immediate six-month hiatus. After getting back together, their relations remained strained for a while.

“From a personal level, we were all torn apart and didn’t really know what we were doing,” he explains. “Once we got the courage to try it again later that year, we started improving slowly, but surely.”

Madison provided the band with a safe, supportive place to hone its skills, and a series of lucky breaks has helped Phox show off those skills. A last-minute cancellation by Azealia Banks got the band a surprisingly well-attended noontime slot at Lollapalooza in August 2013, and Phox went on to open for the Lumineers at the iTunes Festival in London the next month. That well-received show was recorded and later released as a live EP.

This summer’s tour marks a Phox first as headliners (the band traveled with Blitzen Trapper last year). They’re not ending the tour back home in the Midwest on purpose, but they couldn’t be happier to close things out with a string of local shows, celebrating the environment that helped develop them as a band.

“One part of being a Wisconsin band that I think has shaped us is that there’s a separation from culture,” Roberts says. “A band in NYC has 2,000 other bands to compare themselves against, and 1,000 publications to keep up with. Growing up and living in Wisconsin has kept us somewhat shrouded and left us to our own devices to try and make something that makes us happy and excited, and I think in that ignorance there’s a ‘sound’ or uniqueness that lives with many Wisconsin bands.”

What 2015 will bring for the band isn’t yet clear. Roberts says Phox has two European tours in the fall for sure, but whether that will lead them back out on the American road or into the studio is as yet undecided.

Just like the band’s music, what happens next will be a surprise for its members as well as its fans.

On Stage

Phox performs at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom, 1034 N. 4th St., at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 6. Tickets are still available and can be purchased at 414-286-3663 or pabsttheater.org. Phox also has two sold-out shows at Madison’s High Noon Saloon, 701 E. Washington Ave., on Aug. 7-8. 

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