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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Testa Rosa’s Richly Arranged Second Album

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Playing a makeshift stage on Kinnickinnic Avenue during the Bay View Bash several years ago, an expanded lineup of Testa Rosa had listeners wondering how a band could sound so good live.

With the recent release of their second album, II, it is apparent that Testa Rosa has not suffered the dreaded sophomore slump.Sonically the album takes singer Betty Blexrud-Strigens’ haunted pop songs and muscles and massages them with hooks galore, at times echoing vintage girl-group 45s and other times hinting at4AD dream-jangle.

Between Blexrud-Strigens and guitarist Damian Strigens (her husband), bassist Paul Hancock and drummer Bill Backes, the band offers a combined several decades of experience in multiple music styles. It’s that foundation that has anchored Blexrud-Strigens’ songwriting.

“As far as lyrics go, I used to write more about being thrown into circumstances; now I write more about the choices that put us there,” she says.

There is a marked step in maturation on the songs from the debut album to the new one.

“What I think comes across is that the songs were shared with the band much earlier in the writing process,” Blexrud-Strigens says.“I used to feel like the guys wouldn't know how I really meant for a song to sound, unless I gave them a completed GarageBand recording with all of the parts. When all you have ever done is write music by yourself, it can be scary to include others in that process. On II,as the songs were allowed to grow, our comfort level as a band did, too—and I think you can hear it.”

Recorded at Smart Studios in Madison and Howl Street in Milwaukee, II flaunts rich arrangements. Dynamics figure dramatically in the lead track “Big Girl,” as Phil Spector’stemplate neatly spotlights Phil Zell’s trumpet at the coda.“Black Saltwater Sea” hangs its hat on an earworm guitar riff topped off by Blexrud-Strigens’ yearning vocals.

The songs conjure scenery and cinematic vignettes through just a handful of details, trusting the listener to complete the picture.

“‘White Cobra’ started out as this great guitar progression of Damian's, then Paul and Bill built parts on top, but I could not seem to come up with a vocal melody that would fit,” Blexrud-Strigens says.“I tried to think of it more like a painting, and how you shouldn't paint over anything that you like, but maybe work within the negative spaces.Inserting the vocals mid-measure was all I could think of, and I think it turned out better than anything I would have done on my own.”

From John and Yoko to George and Tammy, couple acts tend to conjure drama, but Blexrud-Strigens believes that she and Damian have achieved a good balance.

“The main advantage for me is that it is fun,” she says of working with her husband. “Were it not for Damian, my songs would still be in a binder under the bed. Aside from that, I think we share a level of honesty that allows us to get things done. Sometimes it's just a wince or a nod, but we can communicate well without wasting a lot of time being diplomatic, and that's a huge advantage in a band setting. The disadvantage would be that we still bring baggage, like any couple. Whenever I break a string, I secretly want him to come and fix it.”

Testa Rosa opens for Liz Phair Friday, Jan. 21, at the Turner Hall Ballroom at 8 p.m.