Low-pressure Testa Rosa creates high-energy pop
Four years ago Testa Rosa -- which at that point was a trio -- released one of the best jangly pop records Milwaukee has ever gushed forth.
Four years later drummer Bill Backes has allowed Damian Strigens to focus on guitar (he also played drums on the first disc) and the band's second record is here. The good news is it's still catchy pop.
The better news is that on "Testa Rosa II" the pop is more varied and at times, well, almost symphonic. Check out the lushness of the horn-laden opener "Big Girl."
Other tracks explore new turf. "The White Cobra" has elements of folk pop and "The Black Saltwater Sea" is as dramatic as the title suggests. "My Sin" is a rock and roll ballad that shows off singer and guitarist Betty Blexrud-Strigens' distinctive voice.
Seven of the disc's 11 songs were recorded at Madison's famed -- and departed -- Smart Studios and the remainder were tracked and completed at Milwaukee's Howl Street with Call Me Lightning's Shane Hochstetler.
We talked to Damian Strigens and Betty Blexrud-Strigens about the progress of the band, working at these two studios and more.
OnMilwaukee.com: There have been some changes in the band since the first record, right? Can you tell us about that?
Damian Strigens: The main line-up is primarily the same with the addition of Bill Backes on drums. When we recorded our first album, there were only three of us so I had to tackle all of the drums and the guitars so it was nice to get a regular drummer. We had Jay Tiller (Couch Flambeau) fill in whenever he could but in the end, Bill expressed some enthusiasm and I think he really brought a nice element to the recordings.
In all honesty, the first record evolved as we were just becoming a band. I don't think we even had an actual name when we started recording it. It really just came out of a need to document some tunes that Betty had written. But this new album has been recorded over the past two years or so. We really haven't felt the need to rush anything.
Betty Blexrud-Strigens: To me, the first CD felt a little more like an experiment. I think the three of us -- Damian, Paul and I -- liked the freedom of recording multiple parts in the studio, but then when we had to play them all live, it could be a problem. I mean there are a lot of parts, and even though we were lucky to have very talented friends help us try and replicate the record, in the end it's just easier to be the type of band that the actual record can replicate.
Sounds like an easy concept, but if you are someone like me who likes to build songs in layers, or are in a band with multi-instrumentalists -- it's a challenge, logistically, to recreate that. While I still consider our primary "product" to be our recordings, and not our performance, it feels like on this album the two are more closely aligned.
OMC: (Bassist) Paul (Hancock) has written some tunes on the record, too. Did making this one feel more like a band project than maybe the first one did when it seemed more a project of Betty's and yours?
DS: Maybe a little bit. It does still feel a bit different than any other band that I've been in, in that we let things come pretty easily. We've never really been under any pressure to do what we do which is nice and makes it really enjoyable. There will be dry spells and then suddenly Betty will have three new songs and I'll come up with a few.
Yes, Paul added a few, as well. He gave me a disc about two years ago with all these little piano, bass and organ sketches -- each about a minute or so long.
One day I was listening to my iPod on shuffle and one of these pieces came up. When I saw his name on the screen I thought, "We've gotta make something out of that". When I approached him about it, he kind of had a chuckle "Oh, that? OK -- I guess I'll have to relearn it."
Betty came up with a nice vocal melody and drew up a story based on the missing moon rocks. True story.
BBS: I used to have a bigger phobia of being The Wife in the Band than I do now, but on this one I actually felt a bit freer to explore couple-hood. We even sing a duet. Regardless, we encourage each other to bring separate song ideas and have always benefited when Paul does too.
My songs get to be pretty standard verse-chorus-verse at times, but Damian and Paul bring these unexpected patterns to the table that require me to write differently. Like, I couldn't have written the vocal melody for "The White Cobra" or "Moon Rocks" on its own. Those melodies are really dictated by the guitar patterns.
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We can certainly agree on that sandstorm!
I echo Sandstorms sentiment. One of the great couples you will ever meet.
great people, great band, great music, great disc.
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