The word “pretty” gets tossed around a lot when talking about Testa Rosa. It’s easy to see why: Over the course of two full-length albums—2007’s I and 2011’s II—the veteran Milwaukee band has trafficked in lovingly crafted and ornate guitar-pop that eschews fleeting trends and embraces literate, quietly evocative songwriting. Highlighted by the clear-eyed voice and sad-eyed sensibility of Betty Blexrud-Strigens, Testa Rosa excels at creating a sound that subtly defies categorization yet remains instantly familiar. On the group’s latest shapeshifting LP, III (what else?), that sound is not only perfected, but shot through with a newfound sense of nostalgia and hard-won wisdom—and even a little venom.
That venom is spit right from the get-go on “Bad Wolf,” a thinly veiled attack on divisive Wisconsin governor and presidential hopeful Scott Walker. “At once he wants a great divide / We fall to our knees and cry” sings Blexrud-Strigens over an glowering, echo-y din cooked up by guitarist-husband Damian Strigens, bassist Paul Hancock, drummer Bill Backes, and keyboardist Nick Berg. It’s a bold choice for an opener, though a fitting one for a band that rarely stays in one place for too long. Like previous albums, III effortlessly flirts with multiple influences: the waltz of “Window Breaker” recalls Liz Phair’s “Nashville,” “The Fireman At The Well” adds a little early Elvis Costello to the mix, and “Castaway” makes a play for the album’s best track as it gently laps in and out with an unlikely tropical vibe.
III is Testa Rosa’s most mature album to date, full of moody meditations on travel (“Irvine,” “Castaway”) and sinister tales of death and destruction (“Bad Wolf,” “Leave It On The Side Of The Road”). The driving recklessness of, say, I’s “Ollie & Delilah” is largely absent, as is the music-box delicacy of II’s “Carpet Cube.” Happily, the record makes up for those deficiencies with an refreshingly assured grasp of songwriting and sound. The winning “Patches (I Could Have Written That)” tells the story of a long-ago love affair born inside a record store, as well as its sad, inevitable decline (“Now we can’t go there any more / ’Cuz there are no more record stores”). Closer “Lost Loon,” meanwhile, boasts a chorus so effortlessly lovely and simple that it could only have been written and performed by a veteran band. On these songs and more, Testa Rosa proves that style is a thing best kept fluid, and that fading beauty can be just as captivating as “pretty.”
Testa Rosa will celebrate the release of III Saturday, August 29 at Shank Hall, with Tense Experts playing in support. The band will also play 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s (free and open-to-the-public) 414 Music Live program Thursday, August 27.