Postcard From Milwaukee

BY Blaine Schultz

Sure it would be possible to grab four equally diverse musical acts based in Milwaukee, but the fact they all have recently released albums demonstrates the ongoing vitality of folks who have been at it for decades. If the quote/unquote music biz has become as harsh and cold as this Wisconsin winter, check out these releases and thaw your ears.

Frogwater  - Wide Rivers (BSM) Photo by Deone Jahnke

Frogwater – Wide Rivers (BSM) Photo by Deone Jahnke

Frogwater – Wide Rivers (BSM)[/caption]Drawing from Bluegrass, Celtic, folk, Old Timey and all manner of acoustic music, Frogwater is what happens when you dedicate your life to making music.

Susan and John Nicholson have been at it since 1997. The back cover image of their recent cd Wide Rivers depicts an ancient Martin acoustic hanging alongside a fiddle, sporting a pair of fedoras. And that image sums it up.

Capable of playing nearly any stringed instrument, the Nicholson’s conjure landscapes of emotion and hint at stories with their playing. Propulsive jigs come alive like taut spider webs. This is music from and for the ages. Susan’s bouncing pastoral fiddle is supported by John’s sturdy rhythm guitar. He returns the favor as his sprightly plucking gets pushed by her cascading bowed melodies to the drone of Sheila Larkin’s pump organ. Elsewhere, “The Travelogue Set” conjures Orson Welles’ Harry Lime moving through the streets of Old Vienna.

Trolley - Caught in the Darkness (Easter)

Trolley – Caught in the Darkness (Easter)

If Frogwater’s music can be described as pre-electricity, then let’s call Trolley post-British Invasion.

Since the mid ‘90s the Milwaukee quartet has trafficked in all manner of pop, much of it power. With Caught in the Darkness they spread their wings.

While still retaining that sense of mod brashness, big hooks and fearless jangle, the three songwriters continue to grow. The wise guy listener might play “guess the influence,” pointing to an Only Ones reference or suggesting the royalties for a certain bridge be addressed to Mr. Arthur Lee. Yet all this does is prove these guys did their homework.

The stew they come up with results in an updated vibe utilizing vintage keyboard sounds, Paul Wall and Mike Mike Perotto’s ringing guitars and Terry Hackbarth’s driving bass. Yet the glue that holds it all together is John Phillip’s nuanced drumming, setting the mood throughout.

The crackerjacks here is the final cut “Take My Love,” a seemingly nice psychedelic number that snakes its way down a wormhole, turning itself inside out. Then shedding its skin.This kind of sonic monkey business suggests a meeting where the Zombies and an undamaged Syd Barret might have found audio verity common ground. In this one tune, Trolley leapfrogs over their days a pop hatchlings.

Xposed 4Heads – Chose to be Human (Internal Combustion)

Xposed 4Heads – Chose to be Human (Internal Combustion)

Xposed 4Heads, on the other hand weren’t hatched, so much as grown in test tubes. If you were lucky enough to survive the heyday of MTV, welcome to your nightmare.

Mark G.E., one-time commander of cable-access television icon Joy Farm, leads Xposed 4Heads’ social satire which points back to the likes of DEVO, Oingo Boingo and Kraftwerk. The irony here is Joy Farm’s old lack of budget charm has zoomed into the future where this band can record using studio technology and virtual reproduction of keyboards that would have cost a small fortune back in the day.

Not that it makes any difference to this quintet of mischief makers. All sacred cows are fair game on Choose To Be Human. Social media, handheld devices, information at our finger tips? Leave it to these beavers to write a song called “I’m Not Social,” whose lyrics are a laundry list of how young moderns define social.

Local veterans Bob Jorin, Kelp Chofs, Carter Hunnicutt and Andy Stillin form the nucleus of the band. Special guests include ringers James Chance and Blaine Reninger, along with Theresa Ala Mode from Joy Farm. Listen at your own risk and be prepared to think.

Dr. Chow’s Love Medicine – Distant Planet Photo by Bill White

Dr. Chow’s Love Medicine – Distant Planet Photo by Bill White

On Distant Planet Dr. Chow’s Love Medicine writes Chapter Three in the band’s history. Once characterized as “The Rolling Stones fronted by Joe Cocker on ‘shrooms covering Frank Zappa,” these guys prove to be an ageless express of punk/garage energy. (Like the Trolley cd, this one was also mastered by Neenah native Justin Perkins at his Mystery Room Mastering studio.)

Fronted by the antic Frank Chandek, the band is anchored by the rhythm section of drummer Dan Glaser and bassist Joe Polizzi. The low key fireworks are provided by guitarists Paul “The Fly” Lawson and Brian Wensing, who may offhandedly toss off shards of rockabilly riffage, or a psychedelic lightning bolt with less than the shrug of a shoulder.

With titles like the title cut “61 Chevy,” and “Green Slime,” Chow provides soundtracks to the best B-movies you have never seen.

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