Before the release party for Icarus Himself's excellent new EP, "Mexico," I thought you could put Led Zeppelin behind singer/songwriter Nick Whetro and his songs would still shrink from any pretense of grandeur. "All my life I've been digging holes ... Sometimes I say terrible things that I know," Whetro sings on EP opener "Digging Holes," which is a pretty good metaphor for how Whetro works musically. He's a burrower, not an excavator, not a builder of castles in the sky. Show him a picture of a happy family, he'll eyeball the faded scar on the little girl's knee and scratch at it until a subcutaneous 2-minute dirge wafts out.
Whetro's scope doesn't expand much on "Mexico." The EP is 10 minutes shorter than Icarus Himself's "full-length" 2009 debut, "Coffins," and even though there's more going on around Whetro -- horns, cabana beats, guitars plugged-in more often than not -- he's still painting acute miniatures from some dark isolated place. On record you can hide from a drum machine in a box of vocal distortion. That's trickier to pull off on-stage at Madison's sold-out Frequency, especially when you're on a round-robin twin bill with manic pranksters Sleeping in the Aviary. The two bands were slated to play rotating mini-sets "until one band dies." As much as I like both "Mexico" and "Coffins," I was more concerned that the energy in the room might dip every time SITA ceded the spotlight than I was for the musicians' safety.
Luckily for everyone packed into the Frequency, I'm an idiot. The new two-man band that rounds out Whetro's (former?) solo project, multi-instrumentalist Karl Christenson and drummer Brad Kolberg, took these songs out back and knocked all the computer bells and whistles right off them.
Instead I heard fuzz, glorious, menacing, broken-hearted guitar wails reverberating like bad memories. On "Mexico," Whetro sings "Digging Holes" through a locked door, the music and the listener on the other side jiggling the handle while Whetro crawls under the bed. And it works. But live, Icarus Himself just kicked down the door. "Cadaver Love Song" sounded more urgent, more tortured, its pipe dream trumpet solo more hopelessly wanting. "January (Tennessee)" built from a guilty post-coital whisper to a howl of anguished fidelity. The messier guitars on "35 to Life" revealed a grungy slouch to the song I'd missed on "Coffins." Whetro even put his trademark minimalism to good use, pairing down the intense "Flatwoods, WV" with south of the border beats and phrasing. Less will always be more to Icarus Himself, and that was certainly true on Friday. Drums, guitars, and a compelling voice. What more do you really need?
Label mates Sleeping in the Aviary multiply that formula by three -- lead singer-songwriter Elliott Kozel, bassist Phil Mahlstadt, and drummer Michael Sienkowski are all compelling performers in their own right. Friday each was at his best, along with instrumentalist Celeste Heule, the ever-reliable straight man to her boys' shenanigans. Kozel spent most of the night out front in a Vegas Elvis suit, shocking jaded hipsters with the portents of child abuse on "Gas Mask Blues" ("That's the punchline!" quipped Kozel, pun probably intended), gargling beer to Method-act drowning lovers, and scaling the on-stage equipment like a kid on a jungle gym. Near the end of the night Mahlstadt, wearing a bath robe and sailor hat, took center stage to play songs from his superb side-project, inBOIL, and damn if I can't read my own writing in my Moleskine to tell you what they were.
Confession: by 1:30, the 2-liter boot of dark Spaten I left empty (not) earlier (enough) at the Essen Haus had tracked me down, and it wasn't alone. Video evidence confirms that, yes, SITA really did tear through ELO's "Don't Bring Me Down" as the Frequency lights inexplicably came up early, which means you can probably trust my memory of Sienkowski taking lead on a frantic cover of "Hey Ya!" too. For this reporter, it's probably best bar time came early: there was enough talent in the Frequency to really fuck up the rest of my weekend.
"Mexico" EP and more Icarus Himself and Sleeping in the Aviary records available from Science of Sound.