In Music

Testa Rosa's self-titled debut shimmers with melody

When musician Damian Strigens asked if his new band Testa Rosa -- which also includes his wife Betty Blexrud-Strigens and Paul Hancock -- could get a spot on the second OMCD local music sampler earlier this year, we were inclined to say yes, even though we hadn't heard any of the band's music yet.

After all, Strigens is a veteran of the scene, having not only worked at Atomic and designed CD covers for loads of bands. He was also in Nerve Twins, The Frogs, The Lovelies and The Mustn'ts, a band that was on the first OnMilwaukee.com disc. All three members of Testa Rosa were Mustn'ts.

We weren't prepared for the arrival of "Ollie and Delilah," the band's contribution, which is a melodic, jangly pop masterpiece. Two versions of the tune -- one in German (very Beatles!) -- bookmark Testa Rosa's self-titled debut disc, due out in January.

"The band really began from the evolution of songs that Betty has been writing for quite some time," says Strigens. "She had a bunch of really cool songs from long ago - a few of them got worked into our last band 'The Mustn'ts' and some new ones have popped up along the way. But we pretty much started up shortly after The Mustn'ts closed up shop. The three of us worked well together so we just kept writing and playing."

The nine songs on the disc (there's 10 tracks, but, again, two are "Ollie & Delilah") are amazingly accomplished pop tunes, with catchy melodies and dynamic arrangements. All feature Blexrud-Strigens' expressive vocals. It's hard not to enthuse about a record that might be the best locally-issed disc in recent memory.

The prolific band also has a three-track Christmas EP available, too.

"We all write but Betty wrote about 70% of the songs on this record," says Strigens. "She really has a knack for melody. I think the fact that she was brought up on a mix of everyone from ABBA to Burt Bachrach to The Stranglers really makes the music come from a weird, cool place. Like nothing I've ever heard before. Catchy, but odd and atmospheric. Paul also wrote a great song on the record. One of my favorites."

Amazingly, many of the songs have had very long gestation periods, Strigens says.

"I wrote the progression for 'Ollie & Delilah' while living at the Sidney HiH in the early '90s. It was really intended for the Nerve Twins but they passed on it. Betty came up with this killer chorus and I was like 'Yes! Let's work this up." It was hibernating. Same goes for 'Weather Underground' - and old riff I had laying around, Betty wrote the vocal melody and some great lyrics."

Blexrud-Strigens' "Book About Clouds," "Easy For You to Say" and "Arms of a Tree" are especially alluring, with their melancholic atmosphere and almost symphonic pop structures.

Part of the credit for the results likely lands in the lap of producer and engineer Beau Sorenson, who oversaw the sessions at Madison's Smart Studios, famous as the home of Garbage and the studio where Nirvana recorded parts of "Nevermind."

"Beau was great to work with," recalls Strigens. "It was a really good match up. For a younger engineer he really has a wide musical reference palette. He'll reference the percussion on a Belle & Sebastian record one minute and the bass tone on a YES record the next. Very tasteful. We knew what we were looking for, he just helped us get there with some great suggestions."

Another scene veteran, Jay Tiller -- of Couch Flambeau fame -- is a part-time member of Testa Rosa. While Strigens plays drums, guitar and bass on the recordings, he obviously can't do all that live. That's where the multi-intrumentalist Tiller -- who is a legendary showman -- comes in.

"Jay kind of kick-started us into playing live," says Strigens. "Because I played both guitar and drums on the record, we weren't sure if we were going to have to look for a guitarist or find a drummer as I obviously couldn't do both live. Jay called us up curious to see if we could open for Couch Flambeau. I asked if he'd help us out and play drums on a few tunes, he said yes and he's still playing with us."

Strigens says Testa Rosa has so far been a rewarding experience and he hopes to build on that.

"The beauty of working with this group is that there is very little pressure. This record has truly been the most enjoyable and satisfying recording experience I've ever been a part of. Hopefully we can start to play regionally and take it from there. We're all a little older now with families and stuff but I don't think we're opposed to getting it out there and playing live. That's half the fun."


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