“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.
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.