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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012

The Essential Milwaukee Albums of 2012

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Compiling an annual list of the most noteworthy Milwaukee albums is always one of the most difficult assignments of the year, but this year it was easy in some respects. On one hand, there’s no way to do justice to the breadth of local music released in 2012 in just 15 picks, and every cut and omission stings. On the other, each of the following 15 albums screamed so loudly for inclusion that they felt like no-brainers. What follows is by no means a comprehensive list of the best Milwaukee music released this year, but for those looking to sample what the local scene had to offer this year, these 15 gems are a fine place to start.

Altos – Altos

No Milwaukee album in 2012 was longer coming than the formal debut from Altos, a 12-piece post-rock orchestra that’s been around in some form since 2006, or 2003, depending on how you count. There’s always been a whiff of menace underlying the group’s twisty, turbulent compositions, but they make it explicit on this three-song suite, spelling it out on the cautionary opener “Sing (For Trouble).” That track introduces a new instrument to the Altos’ repertoire and perhaps the more effective one yet: the human voice. When a hitherto instrumental ensemble begins to sing, it’s impossible not to take heed.

AUTOMatic – Art Imitates Life

The rapper/producer duo AUTOMatic knows what kind of hip-hop their fans like best: the jazzy, golden-age-flavored variety with ample shades of A Tribe Called Quest. There’s nothing unique about that sound, of course—on any given weekend there are at least a couple hip-hop acts entertaining college students on the East Side or in Riverwest with more or less the same influences—but AUTOMatic’s update of these styles is particular deft and on their debut for Dope Folks Records, they toss a couple of bold curveballs, including the thumping, electro-funk single “Move.” The message: You can admire the Native Tongues without being completely beholden to them.

The Championship – High Feather

High Feather is the first Championship album in three years and at times it feels like the work of a completely different band. In some ways it is. During their hiatus, the band’s lineup underwent some changes while front man Joe Crockett overhauled his songwriting approach, downplaying explicit alt-country tropes as he reconnected to the forlorn college-rock records of his youth. The result still plays like a country record, in the way that R.E.M.’s wintriest albums do, yet it has a stately majesty all its own. These sad songs ring out with remarkable authority.

Field Report – Field Report

No Milwaukee album attracted more attention in or outside of the city in 2012 than Field Report’s self-titled debut, which made waves well beyond just the NPR/Paste circles primed to love this kind of vivid folk record. For local concertgoers who have witnessed songwriter Chris Porterfield refine his craft over the last half decade, it’s been an especially satisfying success story. While part of Conrad Plymouth, Porterfield undertook a years-long vision quest to hone his aesthetic, toying with folk-rock volume or indie atmospherics, but in the end he learned to let the songs speak for themselves with Field Report, dressing them with understatedly pretty arrangements that never distract from his elegant prose.

Lisa Gatewood – Midway

For a folk singer who so frequently dwells on loneliness and emotional retreat, Lisa Gatewood keeps good company. On her sophomore album, Midway, she calls on some of the friends she’s picked up from her years of gigging around Riverwest to lend a hand. Producer Todd Richards adds some extra bass and guitar here and there; Janet Schiff plays cello on a track; Karen Estrada plays some accordion on another; and Chris Vos duets with her on the standout “If You Had Stayed.” This is decidedly a less-is-more affair, though, and the emphasis is always on Gatewood’s disarming songs and her porcelain voice.

Head On Electric – Sleep Slaughter Sheep

What separates Head On Electric from the countless other bands in Milwaukee’s very crowded garage-punk scene? A healthy dose of grunge, mostly. That seemingly minor variation on a very familiar template opens up a lot of possibilities for this yowling trio, and on Sleep Slaughter Sheep they seem to have a blast caking Meaty Puppet-y sludge over the usual garage-scene terrain: jaunty psychedelia, off-kilter Americana, Replacements-style rock ‘n’ roll—really, there aren’t a lot of genres that don’t sound better when they’re grunged up a bit.


Hugh Bob and the Hustle – Hugh Bob and the Hustle


Since the No Depression movement of the ’90s, there’s been a “right” kind of country and a “wrong” kind of country in independent music circles. Flanked by fellow former members of The Wildbirds in Hugh Bob and the Hustle, Hugh Masterson rebels against such distinctions on the band’s self-titled debut, celebrating American music in all of its forms, however twangy or honky-tonky. He sings about having one too many, celebrates rural Wisconsin’s less-traveled roads, and even dedicates a song to his truck. This is the rare indie-leaning country album that could play just as well with the CMT crowd.


Jaill – Traps


Though they’d probably rather you not dwell on it, Milwaukee goofballs-done-good Jaill get less weird and more sentimental with each release. Slowing the incessant jangle of their Sub Pop debut That’s How We Burn, the trio turns to matters of the heart on their prettier, richer sophomore album for the label, peeling back the layers of sarcasm that once gauzed their bleeding heart on weepers like “Million Times” and “Horrible Things (Make Pretty Songs).” Funny how a psych-pop band that was once considered unlikely labelmates for The Shins have put out a record that’s more heartfelt and genuinely moving than the latest Shins album.


Juniper Tar – Since Before


Juniper Tar began as another great folk-rock band in a scene that already had its share of them, but they’ve evolved into something more unique and treasured, dialing up the guitars—all three of them—on their triumphant double LP Since Before. Though nobody would mistake their brand of crashing roots rock for punk, there’s some real punk rebellion at work here. What strikes about these songs is how much the chilling specter of death hangs over them and how little the band seems to care.


Lorn – Ask The Dust


“I better write this one down and tell everybody,” Lorn croaks on Ask The Dust, his exhilaratingly creepy debut for the prestigious electronic clearinghouse Ninja Tune. Indeed, a sense of confession hangs over the whole record. Slowing the instrumental hip-hop and grime of his previous work to a doomy, beat-heavy craw—call it post-post-post-dubstep, or better yet, don’t—Lorn has crafted his most expressive release yet: a record that for all of its nightmarish corners and tortured sounds still plays like a pop album. Milwaukee’s electronic circles are so isolated from the greater local scene that Ask The Dust’s impact was mostly overlooked at home, but make no mistake about it, this is an important work.


Old Earth – a low place at The Old Place


For his latest album as Old Earth, a string of images and memories that plays out over a single 18-minute track, Todd Umhoefer settled into the basement of his grandparents’ vacant home and turned it into a makeshift studio with help from members of Field Report (who serve less as a backing band than as extra hands on an Ouija board). Like all Old Earth albums, a low place at The Old Place chills deeply, but it’s never paralyzed by bleakness. A hopefulness brightens even its darkest moments—a reminder that as painful as it can be, revisiting the past can be a means to moving on.


Painted Caves – Painted Caves


Like any rock scene, Milwaukee’s tends to recycle the same influences, but occasionally an act emerges that defies precedent completely. A singular collaboration between Palestinian-American songwriter Ali Lubbad and oud virtuoso Mike Kashou, who are assisted by a rotating cast of some of the local scene’s most worldly-minded players, Painted Caves weave traditional Middle Eastern music forms through Western song structures. Fusions of this sort can easily come across as cluttered or, worse yet, gimmicky, but Painted Caves’ global pastiche is so carefully considered and fully formed that it always feels natural—so natural, in fact, that it’s easy to forget these guys are carving a completely new path.


Sulek – Unbound at Last


Sulek describe themselves as “indie pop,” presumably because of the violins and cellos that coat some of the trio’s arrangements, but that term doesn’t do justice to how earthy their latest record is. This is music that’s more primal than twee, with shades of Tom Waits’ gritty blues and Low’s shadowy hymnals. They recorded Unbound at Last in an East Side chapel of the Newman Center and clearly they took full advantage of the acoustics, because the drums positively thunder.


Vic and Gab – Bridges and Guns


It’s nearly impossible to describe Vic and Gab without referencing another, more famous sister songwriting duo with an ear for bright power-pop hooks. But if these Milwaukee-by-way-of-Texas sisters recall Tegan and Sara, it’s only in the best way possible. And like Tegan and Sara, the duo’s sugary surface belies some serious rock-star moves. Before they developed an ear for indie-pop, the two grew up listening to arena rockers like Rush and Supertramp, and to judge from this snappy, seven-song album, they’ve clearly internalized a few tricks.


Yo-Dot – Red Mist


Yo-Dot has spent too much of his career in the shadow of his friend and frequent collaborator Prophetic, in part because his brand of snarled street rap doesn’t have the same wide appeal of Prophetic’s more inclusive style of hip-hop. On Red Mist, though, Yo-Dot takes a cue from Proph’s book and tames some of the menace to make room for pop song craft. Working with a murderers’ row of the city’s most inventive producers, he ruminates on identity, responsibility and fatherhood on a brisk record that sacrifices none of the conviction of his violent early releases, but radiates warmth and maturity.