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The Scarring Party’s Macabre Nods to Yesteryear

Aug. 10, 2010
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With their old-fashioned aesthetic, based on a quick glance at their MySpace page or a press photo, it’s perilously easy to misread Milwaukee’s doom-and-gloom purveyors The Scarring Party as traditional early folk revivalists, a mistake that’s led the band to some spectacularly uncomfortable shows.

“We’ve definitely played shows where I get the impression we were only booked because someone saw that we have a banjo in the band,” frontman Daniel Bullock says. “Then people get indignant when we start playing our miserabilist take on early American music. We played one show in Minneapolis that was a total disaster. We finished our first song and nobody clapped, so we played the rest of the set without leaving any space between songs, just trying to get the hell out of there.”

The group was similarly out of its element when it performed as part of a concert series at the Mitchell Park Domes, a floral backdrop inappropriate for the band’s mordant tales of switchblades, ghouls and apocalypse.

“We played some of our longer, downtempo songs, and afterward a woman from the park came up to us and said, ‘That was just miserable,’” Bullock recalls. “We were just kind of looking at each other, wondering what they had been expecting from us. Did they want an old-timey version of Bay City Rollers or something?”

Though The Scarring Party traffics in the antique, acoustic sounds of music hall jazz, early folk and cabaret—complete with huffing tubas and carnival accordion—it’d be a stretch to call them revivalists, since their songs never could have existed in the 1920s or ’30s. The imagery is too violent, the humor too caustic and the arrangements too jarring. The Scarring Party’s music is more a re-imagination than a re-creation.

“There’s not the sense that the band and I are trying to make something that’s in our CD collections,” Bullock says. “We’re trying to make something that’s missing from our CD collections, so we’re mixing up everything, these pieces of the past and the present.”

This week the band releases their second album, Losing Teeth, which they recorded in parts with Brief Candles’ Kevin Dixon, then Call Me Lightning’s Shane Hochstetler. The sessions were smoother than those for the band’s 2008 debut, Come Away From the Light. Three members left the band, at the time a quintet, during a three-week period while they were recording that album. By Losing Teeth, though, the band had settled on a stable four-piece lineup, with Bullock joined by multi-instrumentalists Isabella Carini and William Smith and drummer Christopher Roberts.

“For this album we were open to trying all these different sounds, liked bowed cymbals or bird whistles—it was fun because we were basically playing with toys to augment arrangements,” Bullock says. “I think Shane in particular liked having us wheel in orchestral chimes for a couple tracks, because everybody loves an instrument you can hit with a hammer. And there’s a lot of interesting percussion treatments that Chris uses on this record. He’s very much the type of percussionist that’s going to take his entire drum kit apart and reconfigure everything to create new sounds.”

Thematically, Losing Teeth continues where Come Away From the Light left off, with more story-songs about outsiders and outcasts, many of which end with violent, darkly whimsical twists. Collectively, the songs form a thesis of sorts.

“When civilization comes in contact with barbarism and savagery,” Bullock explains, “barbarism always overwhelms.”

The Scarring Party headlines a record-release party at the Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, Aug. 13, at 7:30 p.m. with The Celebrated Workingman and The Trusty Knife.


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