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Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012

Tenement’s Appleton- Bred Punk

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It’s often hard to like amazingly talented bands. Talent can breed pretentiousness, and pretentiousness can breed assholes. That’s why bands like Appleton-based Tenement are so noteworthy: They put out great music while continuing to exist as decent, down-to-earth individuals. And the music is great. The band’s potent version of guitar-driven pop punk (with an emphasis on the punk) recalls the best of the Descendents, Hüsker Dü and, closer to home, underrated Milwaukee act Modern Machines. Not too bad for, in the words of vocalist/guitarist Amos Pitsch, “a bunch of dumb hicks crashing the party and eating the caviar.”

As Pitsch’s self-deprecating comment makes clear, the band knows that many critics will focus on the fact that two of the members of Tenement, Pitsch and bassist Jesse Ponkamo, hail from the Fox Valley.

“To most people from larger cities, Appleton is a small, obscure dot on the map, a place where the lights go dim every night at nine o’clock and the entire city sleeps until the work bell rings the next morning—surely not a place where noise-making eccentrics live,” Pitsch says.

At the same time, townies look askance at such “weirdos,” wondering exactly what they are up to. For both camps of observers, Pitsch concludes, “We’re the curiosity.”

This outsider status definitely informs the band’s material. Over a string of EPs and two full-length albums, Tenement has crafted songs that capture such alienation with intelligence, humor and a ferocity that sets the act apart from many of its peers. Such tracks as “(Messy Endings) in Middle America” (from the band’s The Blind Wink) and “Skyscraper” (from Napalm Dream) capture the rage and confusion that often go along with chafing at the confines of small-town life. “I guess I’ll see you around,” sneers Pitsch on “Skyscraper,” “somewhere in the guts of this town.” The lucky ones may get out, but the rest will stick around forever.

The band’s more recent material, including a 2012 split 7-inch with Cheeky, finds the band pushing its sound in new directions, both lyrically and sonically. “The nurses push the bobble-heads down the street,” sings Pitsch on “Perverse Universe,” the standout track on the split EP. “The stomachs of the snob, they disagree. We’re crashing hard and making it look easy. The world ain’t big enough for both of us.” This move away from simple “us-versus-them” lyricism is matched by an evolving sound that brings to mind the mid-period work of The Clash.

Such tracks bode well for the future of Tenement. The band recently recorded a handful of songs for a singles’ club that Chicago-based Cowabunga! Records has in the works. After that, Pitsch and company plan to hunker down in his studio and begin work on their third LP. But first, the band has to make it back to Wisconsin: Tenement is currently in the middle of a grueling month-and-a-half-long national tour, an outing that has the band, in the colorful language of Pitsch, “tempting fate by dragging a 20-year-old van with a thumping transmission, wires showing through the tires, and a perpetual knock in the engine through thousands of miles of mountains and deserts.” Here’s hoping they make it back in one piece.

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