Is this going to be a concert review or a dissertation? Rarely does one come across any discussion of John Maus‘s music that doesn’t drift into metaphysics, despite his own evident disdain for such overthinking of (ostensible) pop music. Confoundingly hailed by his admirers as an accidental pioneer of retro synthesizer music, the only antecedent he seems to accept graciously is Ariel Pink, with whom Maus has been closely associated throughout his intermittent career. So we’ll run with that: His records sound an awful lot like Ariel Pink’s, only minus the guitars. Hopefully, Wednesday night’s show at Turner Hall Ballroom inspires lots of words on its own merits or lack thereof; if not, we promise to pad this review with plenty of intellectual bullshit.
Aiding us in our quest: an opening set by Milwaukee’s own Apollo Vermouth, who gushed mid-set about her longtime admiration for Maus’s music. Alisa Rodriguez has been focused more on other projects (Sundial Mottos, Operations, A Crushed Rose) than Apollo the past couple years, yet the ambient/drone music she’s most known for has lost none of its shimmer. Alone with just a guitar and an array of pedals, Rodriguez’s distinctive reverb-drenched strumming evoked some indefinable emotion that’s equal parts bliss and sorrow, and she brought up collaborator Eli Smith (Honeymooners, Cairns) to end her set with their joint composition “Reflections Of” off 2017’s Crashing Into Nowhere.
Within seconds of Maus coming onstage, the Wikipedia conundrum became clear: How does one objectively describe this sort of animated expression? “On stage, Maus is known for his intense displays of emotion while performing.” Journalism prevails; nobody could argue this point, yet the words are laughably insufficient. Is Maus more Gary Numan or Wesley Willis (the true godfather of “hypnogogic pop”)? Is he more Andy Kaufman or Andrew W.K.? Maus was drenched in sweat within minutes. Few journalists could imagine intentionally being this vulnerable in public; it’s much easier to wax wordy about Maus’s academic background than to try and express the feelings he dredges up.
As soon as the rudimentary beat of “My Whole World’s Coming Apart” began, the crowd, small but respectable for an icy Wednesday night, sprang into action, the core pit up front pogoing giddily for almost the entire show. The atmosphere was not entirely unlike a mid-aughts Animal Collective show, lit up with the glee of being in on something weirdly inspiring that’s probably never going to play to the masses. Maus defies anyone to scoff at his sincerity; it’s a visceral release that takes some getting used to, and combined with a series of simple, highly danceable beats, his at-times anguished demeanor onstage is potentially cathartic for the audience as well as for himself.
It can be difficult to reconcile what comes off as gallows humor on record with Maus’s unbridled enthusiasm onstage. Songs like “Castles In The Grave” and “Teenage Witch” became more than goth exercises with Maus singing them in person, and his earnestness in performing a song like “Pets,” almost intolerably cruel at face value (most of the lyrics consist of “Your pets are gonna die”), comes off as forcibly therapeutic in the live setting.
Yes, Maus did a song called “Cop Killer.” Its notoriety evidently preceded it; the urgency and participation from the crowd rose dramatically, whether or not they believed in this song more literally than Maus claims to. Such a simple, oft-repeated lyrical sentiment, yet one could envision it being dropped from setlists as a tired trinket if Maus were to somehow rise to actual fame. It’s not going to stir up much controversy three long decades after “Fuck Tha Police,” but it is a chillingly effective song on all levels. That goes double for the set’s penultimate tune, “And Heaven Turned Her To Weeping.” It was easily the slowest song of the night, and there was a moment of silence in its middle that wasn’t broken by a soul, before Maus resumed singing: “The flowers are dying now that you’ve left me / There’s no one to hold any more / The city is haunted and nobody loves me.”
Rather than leave anyone feeling depressed, Maus encored with one of his few blatantly uplifting songs: “Believer,” which demands no further puzzling. “They call me the believer / And I’m not coming back,” he sings; you can either join him or not. Between curious outsiders and diehards, he’d managed to bring out a very motley cross-section of ages and hairstyles, and he got them to dance.