If there’s one thing missing from the recent Wisconsin musical landscape, it’s the album format. Plenty of acts have created recorded documents that exhibited fine songwriting and musicianship, but only a handful have approached the album as more than simply a collection of songs written within a specific timeframe. Those who have accepted the challenge have produced their strongest works (Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago and The Promise Ring’s Nothing Feels Good both come to mind), broadening their audiences on national and international levels.
Since their formation in 2006, Tenement has toured extensively, (including two trips to Japan) and released a healthy amount of music along the way. Though the band calls Appleton home, two-thirds of the band are Milwaukee residents and play an active role in the city’s DIY music scene. The band’s impressive 2011 debut Napalm Dream and its follow up The Blind Wink boosted their profile in the underground and beyond, building a sizeable following that eagerly awaited the band’s next move.
On Predatory Headlights, the band’s first album in four years, Tenement expands their sonic palate, drawing from various pockets of American music from the last 60-plus years, a practice that’s far removed from the “pop punk” scene they are sometimes associated with (a lazy classification at best). Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, Predatory Headlights spans four sides of two LPs.
“I wanted it to be extravagant and I wanted it to showcase every angle of Tenement in a way that has never been showcased before” says singer and guitarist Amos Pitsch. The result is a highly listenable and fully realized body of work that’s equal parts thoughtful and tuneful.
The luxury of the double album is that it allows an artist to explore a wide variety of options, although some have found it difficult to do so without going overboard. On Predatory Headlights, Tenement continue their work with guitar-driven melodic pop songs, but manage to take some risks as well. New textures and sounds are seemingly endless, and one particularly unique sound makes more than a few appearances.
“I developed a certain obsession with bells about a year or two ago,” says Pitsch. “I started spending a lot of my money collecting old metal bells of different sizes and material. They have such a universally jarring sound and the ability to really get people to listen. It’s really their definitive purpose.” Bells, out of tune pianos and array of other unorthodox sounds can be heard throughout the album’s 25 tracks.
While Predatory Headlights contains plenty of great tunes that fit well into their existing catalog, some of the album’s most impressive material comes in the form of its more diverse offerings. “Ants + Flies” closes out the album’s first side on an elegant note, with Pitch singing and playing piano, eventually giving way to a beautiful string arrangement reminiscent of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. On “A Frightening Place for Normal People,” the album’s longest and most experimental offering, Tenement abandons traditional song structures in favor of a free-form exploration of strings, piano, percussion and unplaceable found sounds, resulting in a composition that recalls the work of Sun Ra and scenes from Black Orpheus.
What’s most impressive about the album is when the eclecticism can be heard within the course of an otherwise traditionally structured song. “Whispering Kids” channels Radio City-era Big Star with its spacious drums and colorful guitar arpeggios before launching into a delightful electric piano-driven middle section. The strong melody of “Feral Cat Tribe”’ is sweetened by the backup vocals of Arielle Smith, who’s intricately layered voice accompanies the song’s exit, elegantly bowing out in gorgeous harmony before being quickly followed by an explosion of crashing percussion and cymbals. “Garden of Secrecy” is an anthemic, uptempo rocker that takes a brief detour into a barrage of hand bells. The driving rhythm section of “Keep Your Mouth Shut” shows a notable Figgs influence, juxtaposed against some seriously noisy string work, courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Julia Blair.
Predatory Headlights is an album filled with songs that contain both familiar and unfamiliar elements, giving the listener something to latch onto while fearlessly taking a series of unexpected twists and turns.
Every so often an album reminds us that pop music — regardless of current trends — can still be incredibly substantial. On Predatory Headlights, Tenement have accomplished this with style and precision. There’s clearly much to digest, and it’s best enjoyed from start to finish. I believe that Predatory Headlights is the most impressive album to come out of Wisconsin in the last decade, and while the band has previously gone largely unnoticed in the eyes of the local press, Predatory Headlights is far too good to be ignored. It’s understandable if you’ve gone this long without ever having heard Tenement; starting now, however, you no longer have an excuse. This one comes highly recommended.
Predatory Headlights was released in June through Don Giovanni Records and can be purchased at many fine record retailers across the country. Stream the album via Spotify below. Visit facebook.com/tenement for tour dates and more.