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Ugly Brothers’ Expansive Folk Grows Ever Prettier

Sep. 25, 2013
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With acts like Space Raft, Collections of Colonies of Bees, Holy Shit!, Mortgage Freeman and countless others of the ilk spread thick throughout the music scene, Milwaukee has no shortage of bands with random, lighthearted names with no real relevance to the way they sound.

Ugly Brothers isn’t one of those bands—not that its members are homely or anything.

In 2011, brothers Palmer and Alex Shah—who’d been playing together in various projects since 2008, when they still lived in their native Green Bay—joined forces again to form Ugly Brothers. The duo of Milwaukee transplants combined elder brother (and banjo player) Palmer’s affinity for Delta blues and jazz instrumentation with singer and guitarist Alex’s self-described “sad-sap” singer/songwriter tendencies to form the project that perfectly described the siblings’ gritty, unpolished folk renderings. At least “ugly” started out as a good descriptor.

Along the way, the folk expanded. Following two quiet years that found the brothers doing little more than a handful of house shows, the Shahs began to tack on new members, beginning with the addition of percussionist Jay Joslyn. Soon, the stripped-down band grew and its sound was prettied up considerably with the addition of a string section—cellist Jenna Pepitone and violinist Anna Zaleski.

“The strings kind of bring, I don’t want to say refined—but the music they’d been writing was kind of gritty,” Zaleski said. “Bringing in cello and violin harmonies; that classical vibe is kind of cool juxtaposition. It’s a blend of a lot of stuff.”

The blend became even more robust when upright bass player Alex Heaton approached the five-piece after an early gig at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn. With Heaton, the Ugly Brothers family tree had six sturdy branches and a formidable trunk rooted in multi-part harmonies and skilled musicianship that transcends traditional folk.

“Everyone has such a natural talent,” Palmer Shah said. “It’s like in movies when a team of experts gets together: the demolition guy, the computers guy. I feel like our band is kind of like that. Everyone gets together and has their own aspect to it where they’re really talented.”

While the new members were originally just contributing small supporting parts to the framework of existing Ugly Brothers songs, the expanded lineup is already yielding a richer and more complex sound since the current lineup began playing out formally in May.

“I think we’re better musicians now and everybody has a better ear for [what works],” Alex Shah said. “Anna and Jenna have such a good ear for harmonies.”

As the group grew by four and its sonic possibilities increased in droves, the band’s show schedule filled in as well. However, Ugly Brothers is careful to take things slow, trying not to play out too often. This winter the band plans to record a full-length album in Sat. Nite Duets member Andrew Jambura’s home studio, with a vinyl release likely next spring or summer.

“We’ve been taking it one step at a time,” Alex Shah said. “The fact that we’re already planning out a record is really big for us. We really want to do the Milwaukee festival thing next summer and hopefully we’ll have an album for that, and maybe we’ll go on a little tour.”

Through the sibling duo’s extensive recent renovations, the name Ugly Brothers now makes no more sense than Surgeons In Heat or Animals In Human Attire. But the improvements that accompanied the changes ensure it will be a name Milwaukee will see much more often. And who says band names need to make sense, anyway?

Ugly Brothers headline a show Friday, Sept. 27, with Wolfgang Schaefer, Myles Coyne and The Calamity Janes at Riverwest Public House. The show begins at 9 p.m. and costs $6.


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