Does a year-end best-of list really need an introduction? No, no it does not. So, without further ado, here’s our (non-ranked) list of 15 standout Milwaukee EPs (typically featuring five tracks or fewer) of 2019. Enjoy.
Lex Allen – I.D.E.N.T.I.T.Y.
“Don’t give a damn if you get me / Open your eyes, see the beauty.” That’s Milwaukee music ambassador Lex Allen on the bracing, fuzzed-out opener to the three-track I.D.E.N.T.I.T.Y. The follow-up to 2018’s terrific Table 7: Sinners & Saints LP is indeed about a defiant sense of identity, but, like Allen, it doesn’t stay in one place too long. “Your You” switches gears and serves up an unapologetically smooth and sexy slow jam, while “Let Go” is an anthemic blast of fresh air about leaving your hangups at the door and allowing your inner self to shine. Dye your hair, grab a beer, “take a shower for an hour,” whatever—in Lex Allen’s world, even the smallest act of self-expression is a thing of beauty.
Shle Berry – Tampons
Without question Shle Berry’s hardest-edged work yet, Tampons begins with a woozy swirl of sounds, courtesy of Mike Regal, a stark reversal from the upbeat, catchy bent of last year’s Parallels. The song, “Breakdown,” is dark and combative, which isn’t a brand new thing for Berry; this is just a new level. “Time Of The Month” and “Trix” are similarly aggressive, but at times definitely playful, and musically much more infectious. Berry’s at the top of her game in terms of vocal precision and flow, and few Brew City MCs are as adept at switching back and forth between slick melodic hooks and spitting venom as smoothly as Shle. Her wordplay improves with each release, and these somewhat less commercial beats suit her just as well as the blueberry-apple-type stuff.
Cashfire Sunset – Mars Banks
After bursting onto the scene with 2018’s self-titled debut that quickly prompted the young band to land some high-profile local shows, Cashfire Sunset chased its first year in existence with an even more accomplished 2019. The prolific shoegaze outfit’s follow-up EP, Mars Banks, was one of two formal releases this year, and an indication of the band’s ongoing and altogether encouraging development. From the fuzzed-out title track to the dreary “Phased Out” and the distorted earworm that is “Cheap World,” Cashfire Sunset firmly reinforces its excellent aural introduction from a year prior with this five-track effort. As good as Mars Banks is, it’s actually the band’s second-best release of the year—paling in comparison to the full-length, Get The Starts, which they’d release less than three months later.
Nicholas Elert – Speculative Fiction
A veteran of Milwaukee’s metal, classical, and experimental scenes, Nicholas Elert has also ventured into electronic music over the past few years (most notably through film scores), but his latest solo record, Speculative Fiction, is a more traditionally song-based affair than much of his previous work in this field. As such, it’s relatively accessible, yet at times chaotic. “Exploded View” is a dark, John Carpenter-esque piece that bleeds into “Big Shock,” which builds through ominous, heavy synth pulses into a massive glitchy maelstrom. The final track, “Phase Machines,” is a serene respite at first, but soon the tension ratchets up again; the payoff is as invigorating as it is harrowing.
Heavy Hand – Get Soft Get Clean
The latest release from noise-rock stalwarts Heavy Hand boasts 10 tracks, but those 10 tracks are over and done with in approximately 17 minutes; thus, Get Soft Get Clean lands on our list of standout EPs. (Don’t sweat the arbitrary rules, folks.) Not that previous Heavy Hand records were self-serious epics. Beginning with 2012’s Confusion Is Body Parts and culminating in 2017’s Prerapture Era, Anthony Weber, Isa Carini, and Chris Roberts have always specialized in bracing, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them blasts of rock and roll. And so it goes with Get Soft Get Clean. “Tonight’s The Night For Tinnitus” is both a menacing thrash and an appropriately titled threat. “Feed The Portal” pounds like a headache. “Microwave Steak” simmers before it explodes. Closer “All Dogs DTF” is down to rock. “You Talk Like A Manager,” meanwhile, is maybe the best 90 seconds in Milwaukee music this year. “When you talk you’re talking…SHIT!” screams Weber in the chorus. It rules.
LaFond – i wrote and recorded this yesterday
Oddly enough, singer/songwriter Siren never did make an album. Despite releasing a couple of instantly iconic singles and being a driving force behind the New Age Narcissism collective for the past half-decade, Siren’s recorded output consists of approximately five songs, the most recent being “Cold Sweats” from a 2016 Arte Para Todos compilation. Then, without fanfare, mid-November, i wrote and recorded this yesterday appeared, and Siren had become LaFond. There is a 2014 album by Katie LaFond on Bandcamp that’s closer in style than Siren to this new EP; yesterday features that same versatile, emotive voice, only the songs are more poetic and sophisticated, and apparently, tossed off in a day. As her live performances have always indicated, LaFond’s songs transcend genre; we can only hope this quick strike leads to a more prolific stage of her career.
Magnetic Minds – Recompose
They don’t make bands like Magnetic Minds anymore. Though new sub-genres seem to be created on a daily basis (and fall out of favor at an equally alarming clip), there will always be a place in music for straight-up, unadulterated rock and roll. With Recompose—the first Magnetic Minds release since 2012—the trio proves as much with a chaotic quintet of fast, frenzied, and just plain pummeling songs. Chris Ortiz leads the charge with well-placed screams that are carefully laid atop meticulous, angular guitar riffs and an imposing wall of bass and percussion that demands the listener’s undivided attention. In under 15 brash and brutal minutes, Magnetic Minds make their long-awaited return with a short and sweet release that’s likely get your head banging and leave your ears ringing before you recompose and do it all over again.
Auti Marie – Boss Bitch Magic
Picking up where her 2016 album Bonafide left off, Auti Marie’s latest EP, Boss Bitch Magic, serves as a testament to the recent rise of powerful women MCs in Milwaukee. Female empowerment is the theme right from the get-go; “Like Mike” is a challenge to the male-dominated status quo in hip-hop, while the rest of the EP deals more with relationship issues. “Dilemma” takes a more pessimistic attitude, setting up the sexually charged “Nicely” as a rebound, as catchy as it is risqué. The remaining two tracks are more introspective; “Go To War” and “Toxic Love” come off as musical therapy, and while there may not be a happy ending to this particular story, these songs strike a chord of solidarity with anyone who might be going through similar struggles.
Nepenthe – Demons
Dreams, folk stories, and images of transformation all float through Nepenthe’s Demons, an impossibly gorgeous three-song EP from Milwaukee musician Krist Schubliske. “Miles To Go” is a haunting and half-awake wish for fulfillment (scored by some smooth, smooth sax), “Lonely Worlds” drowns in a warm ocean of folk and jazz, and “Demons” opens with an image of a “Seraph standing on a plateau.” Schubliske’s project takes its name from Greek mythology and a fictional “medicine for sorrow”; Demons works as that medicine, too.
OQ – Paradice 1
Though OQ hasn’t played many shows in its brief tenure, Wisconsin music aficionados are likely aware of the group’s musical affiliations. The self-described “creative duo” consists of Liam O’Brien (of Holy Sheboygan! and namesake of Liam O’Brien’s Faithless Followers) and Cole Quamme (of The Fatty Acids). While officially a twosome, OQ’s members called on a wealth of Milwaukee musicians to contribute on the project’s debut EP, Paradice 1. Players and vocalists involved in the recording process include members of The Fatty Acids, Bon Iver, Cairns, Pay The Devil, Mortgage Freeman, D’Amato, Caley Conway, Ms. Lotus Fankh, Sat. Nite Duets, and more. That impressive and eclectic cast of collaborators make their influence known on the release’s five winning compositions that effortlessly meld aspects of traditional folk with futuristic electronic elements and undeniable world music undertones on infectious EP standouts like “Song You Can Dance To” and “Lifestyle.”
Old Earth – Beast Of Needs
After releasing at least 15 albums/EPs over the course of the past decade-plus, Todd Umhoefer laid Old Earth to rest in September. Beast Of Needs, the final OE album, packs a lot of ideas into 12 minutes, expanding the project’s sonic palette at the last minute via various synth tones, oblique percussion, and some of Umhoefer’s slickest segues yet between different rhythmic passages. “O.N.A. (Lost Arrow)” features some of the most soaring, impassioned singing we’ve yet heard on an Old Earth release, and it’s followed shortly by “Pastor Claire,” the most jarring, invigorating rock piece he’s put out since 2014’s All Kill. While it’s surely not the end of Umhoefer’s music career, it’s only fitting that Old Earth goes out on a high note, bookending one of the most stunningly original artist catalogs in Milwaukee music history.
Retoro – s/t
The future of Milwaukee music is bright. Recent years have given local listeners some encouraging signs of things to come with youthful projects like Negative/Positive, Gas Station Sushi, and Golden Grenades. With all due respect to those up-and-coming groups, another high school project isn’t hinting at the future of Milwaukee music—they’re contributing to its legacy right now. This spring, Retoro—a quartet of adolescents, some of whom have parents with ties to groups like Juniper Tar, Indonesian Junk, and 1956—came seemingly out of nowhere to instantly garner attention with a self-titled demo. The four-song release finds the underage outfit shining with beyond-their-years instrumentation, jagged vocals, and material that confidently nods in the direction of ’70s-era garage rock and the salad days of punk. As we wait with excitement to see what Retoro’s future holds, the band’s debut EP is one hell of a present.
SIN BAD / Bad Wig – SIN BAD WIG
Peanut butter and jelly. Gin and tonic. Jake and The Fatman. There are certain things that are destined to be joined at the hip, destined to go together like, well, peanut butter and jelly. You can add Milwaukee rock bands SIN BAD and Bad Wig to that list. In 2019, the head-bopping guitar-pop of the former and the scuffed-up garage-rock of the latter (both with splashes of vintage Midwest emo) found a common home on the excellent, four-songs-apiece SIN BAD WIG split. SIN BAD’s side is highlighted by the “growing up sucks” earworm “Chores,” while Bad Wig’s side scores big with a shimmering re-recorded version of “Machinehead.”
SistaStrings – Lift
Monique and Chauntee Ross have, quite literally, been involved with music as long as they can remember. The siblings have played string instruments since before they were in grade school. Along with two of their older sisters, Monique and Chauntee spent much of their youth learning gospel and orchestral standards and plying that early experience in a band called Sisters Of Praize that performed at churches, nursing homes, and corporate events. In recent years, they decided to blend their varying areas of expertise with their own material to start SistaStrings. Despite making a name for themselves by playing out frequently and accompanying the likes of Mike Mangione, Klassik, and Nickel&Rose, the dynamic duo had almost no recorded material to their name: until 2019, that is. This year, SistaStrings treated listeners to Lift, a five-song illustration of the Ross sisters’ uncanny skill set, artistry, and imagination. Soulful opener “Shea Butter Dreams” sparks the EP into existence before giving way to an astounding adaptation of “Deep River,” a touching biographical original called “Her Name Was,” and “Cadenza For Chauntee”—a gorgeous instrumental number—before reaching a smooth and uplifting landing conclusion with an unforgettable version of “Lift Every Voice.”
Soda Road – Arms/Station Wagon
We described Soda Road’s 2018 debut, Varsity Of Winter, as a “melancholy, stay-at-home-and-bundle-up kind of record.” It was written during the Polar Vortex of 2014, after all, and contained lines like “Take me away with a capital ‘A’ / I don’t wish to remain.” Fun stuff! But Soda Road’s Stephen Strupp was feeling much better in 2019, as evidenced by the impossibly catchy single “Arms.” Strupp, along with band members Graham Hunt and Sam Reitman, and guest vocalists Elisabeth Gasparka and Sarah Luther from Warhola Cats, crafted a near-perfect ear worm. Eh, forget the “near” thing—”Arms” is a perfect ear worm, period. “Pick up your arms tonight / Not the ones for hugging tight / Talkin’ ’bout the other kind,” Strupp sings. Not since The Flaming Lips’ “Fight Test” has a tongue-in-cheek song about fighting been this fun.