Sometimes, when the winter Wisconsin sky is just a little too gray, and the cold seeps through three layers of clothing before my boot hits the sidewalk, and the two-block walk to my car chills like camping at Valley Forge, I’ll cue up “Pet Sounds” on the iPod just to remember summer, just to remind myself that there are riverfront patios and Pilsners and Cubs games at Miller Park at the end of this godforsaken brrr.
“Great Vacation!” exclaims Sleeping in the Aviary’s third album from its Ralph Steadman beach postcard cover, released, of all months, in frigid November. You might use the latest from Madison’s favorite Minneapolins the same way I use “Pet Sounds,” provided that you spent your summer accidentally killing your lover with a ball gag or drowning on a cruise ship.
Yep, SITA are cracking jokes before you even crack the CD’s spine. And it turns out that laughter warms you up even faster than “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
The beach? I don’t think SITA get past their local “Y.M.C.A.,” and a scuba lesson that ends in visions of a girl “sucking the poison out,” if you get my drift (in case you don’t, the band helpfully adds a giggle at the end of the track). All those cheery island beats and go-go melodies are power-pop fake bake on the pale, insecure, inwardly furious and outwardly violent bodies that batshit brilliant singer-songwriter Elliott Kozel knows best. Summer doesn’t get any more November than this.
Three proper albums and a couple side-projects in, it’s clear that Kozel is one of the most original and ingenious songwriters in music right now -- not local music, not indie label music, MUSIC, period. Love gone very, very wrong is his great theme, and his greatness lies in the absurd kinds of “wrong” he keeps coming up with. A blowjob joke after scuba diving or a “Last Kiss on a Sinking Ship” are happily ever after compared to “Maria’s Ghost,” the catchiest S&M song since the Velvet Underground. Poor Maria forgets her safety word, “and now she’s deaaaaaaad,” croons Kozel while a trumpet and accordion chuckle behind him. In case you feel too bad for that guy who finds his soul mate just as his boat goes all Titanic on him, SITA send them both off to Davy Jones’ locker with a chorus of gargling.
Some listeners have a hard time appreciating just how clever SITA are because of these sick puppy punchlines, or, even more so, because of the raw, high-speed aggression that characterizes much of their best work. Me, I like Kozel pitched as close to all-out mania as I can get him, like his punk-greaser scrawling love notes with a switchblade in “Blacked Out Fun,” or the joyriding teenager who steals a car and gets high just on flooring the gas on “You Don’t Have to Drive.” But the uptick in production value on “Great Vacation!” -- the gargling, the background do-wops, the brass and pianos -- make this by far their most accessible album, softening the sharp edges without overwhelming Kozel’s particular peculiarities. Even more impressive is the Arcade Firey boardwalk cabaret SITA build for musical saw-ist Celeste Heule’s star turn on the chantey “Axes Ground Looth Tooth.” We already knew that drummer Michael Sienkowski and bassist Phil Mahlstadt were brilliant solo performers, and now Heule proves she too can hang with her boys at the mic, albeit with a wistful modesty befitting the band’s raccoon-capped straight man.
About the only bad thing I can say about “Great Vacation!” is that longtime Sleeping in the Aviary fans will know a lot of these concert staples by heart. Of course, owning so many instant classics in such well-polished versions, at long last, is part of the album’s appeal too. In fact, it was just over a year ago that I was writing about “Maria’s Ghost” and album-closing country sob “The Very Next Day I Died” in the first piece ever published on our silly little website. We haven’t “rocksposed” a better band since. And we won’t.