A spotty debut from the Wisconsin sextet whose languorous summer tracks will return to you in dreams.

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If you’ve heard of Baraboo, Wisconsin before, chances are you’re from southern Wisconsin. Or you’re a circus lover, and you’ve been contemplating a visit to the Circus World Museum since Baraboo is, after all, home of the Ringling Brothers. For the past couple of weeks, leading up to the release of its debut album, folk pop sextet PHOX has been jacking up Baraboo’s Google search capital. Indie radio DJs and buzz bloggers alike have been giddily introducing PHOX as this band from Baraboo, WI as if it’s a curio with quaint geographical origins—that’s right: go west of Brooklyn, and if you hit Los Angeles, you’ve gone too far. It’s as if PHOX itself is the circus act.

After the release of their second single, “1936,” it’s clear that PHOX is a band that is content to wear its humble roots on its sleeve, though it would never stoop to turning Baraboo into a cheap brand. While the single is in homage to Edith Ringling (dubbed Queen of the Circus) in which lead, Monica Martin, communes with Baraboo’s cirque pedigree, many of the other tracks possess a dreamy evergreen quality, oscillating between low and mid-tempo replete with acoustic embellishment. Alas, their label, Partisan Records (Deer Tick, Heartless Bastards) is from Brooklyn.

On this debut album, Martin’s voice is the best instrument at PHOX’s disposal—and there are many to choose from (clarinet, flute, trumpet, mandolin, banjo, egg shaker, etc.). Her seamless vocal glides into higher registers—glides that manage to carry the heft of a husky rasp to jazz-inspired falsetto—feel oxymoronic at times, but I learned early in the album (by “Slow Motion,” you’ll see too) to trust Martin. Following the phantom lead of Holliday, Fitzgerald, and James, Martin leads the all-male Wisconsonite sextet to eruptions of harmony, caesurae, and jam. At her best, Martin earnestly aspires to the stature of any of these women, but there are lengthy lapses into pop shadows in which she can only be likened to a Sara Bareilles imitator. At almost thirteen minutes, two of the last three tracks challenge the listener’s patience for late-album ballads.

There are only a couple great songs on the album, including singles “Slow Motion” and “1936,” melodically pleasant and jangly. The first and last songs aren’t nearly the revelations that the singles are, but they are still succinct folk songs that place Martin’s voice where it ought to be always: at the center of each song’s gravity. While the front half of the album could have functioned as a fair EP, the eponymous PHOX suffers from later tracks that are reliant on vague lyrics and forgettable melodies, notwithstanding the consistently inspired instrumentation.

Many of the songs reference slower times—from “Leisure” and “Slow Motion” and “1936”—but it never feels like an idyll. The acoustic instruments encapsulate the power of analog, even if PHOX doesn’t master the art of being slow on the listener’s very different schedule. As PHOX and Partisan continue to create and produce music for this niche within popular music—a niche inhabited by the likes of Lake Street Dive, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and The Hush Sound—the songs will likely become tighter, and one can only hope Monica Martin’s voice will stay exactly the same.

“Her blood is our blood too. I feel all of it too.”

1. Calico Man
Monica Martin’s voice is the appropriate centerpiece for the lead song on this debut. At just under two minutes, it’s a near-a cappella that acclimates us to PHOX’s secret weapon. Backed by muted bass and shimmery guitar feedback, Martin directly addresses Calico Man, tells him, “I have to leave this city, but I’ll likely come again.” While it is unclear what kind of chimera the Calico Man may be, it is clear the PHOX is content to create such folkloric figures even as Martin’s voice places them at the intersection of pop and jazz. Even though it is only two minutes long, “Calico Man” has the greatest potential. It is an enigma on an album whose tracks are all-too-eager to reveal emotional swells through transparent instrumentation. The forlornness is a function of lyrical longing and vanishing (“at this distance, you go blurry”), and while these themes are explored later on the album, the subject and Martin’s voice are not always commensurate as they are here.7.8
2. Leisure
The first few bars of “Leisure” serve as a not-so-subtle reminder that PHOX is a competent sextet, that Martin will be duly accompanied. It feels procedural—the escalating strings, mandolin tremolo, and rhythmic piano—but by the bridge, PHOX is sounding snazzy. After a verse-chorus-verse arrangement, the piano repeats an arpeggio with long corridor acoustics, and the lyrical fatigue (“all this leisure / has got me feeling tired”) arrests itself as if Martin’s batteries need replaced. The lo-fi drums remain constant as the clarinet riffs, wending its reedy timbre wending through the back half of the first true track of PHOX.7.6
3. Slow Motion
This track further develops the relaxation motif as Martin claims she does everything in slow motion, though if you’re hoping for a didactic mindfulness teaching, it’s not here. As the folk instrumentation plods along, the pop analog sensibility of PHOX is unapologetic. It’s even more saccharine than, say, Sara Bareilles—just wait for the clarinet solo, twinkling chimes, and jangly whistling—but despite being its slow-moving nature, “Slow Motion” is equipped offers a rich palette. Due to its varied tempo changes, it would be inaccurate to call it poky. Rather, there is a propensity toward soul-slackening bridges, lush transitions that erupt into calm but fertile verse.9.1
4. 1936
In my favorite single from PHOX, Martin’s voice is huskier than in other tracks, though she still ventures after her pristine head voice. Several measure-end lyrics are sung in falsetto with scat-like rhythm. By the end of the track, I can hear the playfulness and androgyny of Merrill Garbus’s register. What elevates it above a Jason Mraz pop duet is the lyrical content. It’s a song about Edith Ringling, who married one of the seven Ringling Brothers and who was known as Queen of the Circus. Over the course of the song, Edith is raised as the matron of Baraboo, PHOX’s hometown in Wisconsin. “Her blood is our blood too (you know)” Martin sings. “I feel all of it too, (you know).” The banjo, bass, and piano join to punctuate Martin’s homage while a faint egg shaker comes and goes. The song ends with an affected Martin singing ‘too’ pronounced as ‘doo’ and a nasal inflection on the last words: “I know.”9.4
5. Evil
Even as I’m listening to it—with palm-muted strings keeping rhythm and a trumpet solo—I swear the first two minutes of “Evil” is a cappella. The backing vocals are harmonized barbershop style, interacting with Martin’s slow-going, but gorgeously flowing rasp. Martin’s trills can sound like Snow White at times. Evoking biblical verse (The Book of Proverbs 11:19), the lyrics are vaguely vindictive, which makes the recurring euphoric tone incongruous. The second half of the song straggles, but is seamless with the somber song, “Laura.”7.0
6. Laura
As with the opening track, “Laura” is a track built upon grief and enigma. While it is stripped of narrative, we hear Martin alternately interrogating and encouraging Laura. “What are you doing here?” Martin asks. “What did they do to you?” “What did they take from you that you can never get back?” As Martin asks difficult questions directly of this victimized character (akin to Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers), PHOX articulates a nuanced perspective on gender and age. Martin laments the inevitable stasis that Laura will endure. Despite Martin’s assurance that Martin can grow up, Laura’s stars will remain unchanged. Her fate is that of a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Oh girl, you’re crying out in your room / wanting to shoot the moon / because you will never go far. / You’ll just stay the same.” In this slow six-plus-minute ballad, PHOX traverses through the deep, tragic valley between ‘can’ and ‘will.’7.4
7. Kingfisher
In a simple and insubstantial song, “Kingfisher” opens with what sounds like the rhythm guitar for a Sandals Resort commercial. Rather than steel drums though, there’s banjo arpeggio and a flute mimicking the guitar. The lyrics recount a dream via nonsensical syntax, romantic imagery, and asinine blasphemy (“woke to an angry headache on your sabbath day… reverie is my goddamn right.”). The end streams with jam band-like guitars, but never takes off in solo, just ends—as with dreams—as inexplicably as it began.4.8
8. Shrinking Violets
This song is as dull as PHOX gets. The melody is forgettable and the lyrical imagery trite. PHOX’s nondescript brand of jangle pop is buoyed by pleasant but unprovoked flute. At the song’s end, a rare amplified guitar is definitively condemned to background noise.4.8
9. Satyr and the Faun
Opening with slide guitar, PHOX traverses into the mythical realm of the satyr and faun. Martin is metaphorically addressing the “you” that recurs in many of these tracks. The attempt to generate a more mythical mood is shallow—instruments are muffled, a violin solos—but in the end, the song does not attain the requisite enchantment.5.0
10. Noble Heart
“Noble Heart” is dimensionless, a problem that, on the surface, seems to be corrected by first a guitar, then trumpet riff forays that add guardrails around an otherwise shapeless song. The only problem is that the riffs are as shapeless as the songs they are ornamenting. The momentumlessness of this hunk of the album requires patience that, unfortunately, feels unearned.4.2
11. Raspberry Seed
This is a song that knows how to take its time, how to stretch out. The couple minutes of gratuitous fingerpicking embedded within the beginning-middle of the song (really, it feels like the instrumental version of the first two minutes) act as lazy breadcrumbs that remind listeners how the song made its way to a mid-tempo jam. When Martin’s voice returns with the trumpet, this time solely as an instrument, the authentic textures and dynamics elevate the tension (a tension sustained by late mandolin). All this serves as a necessary reminder that this sextet coheres beyond the mid-album spurting. The momentum is thankfully regained, but to what end? It’s a seven-plus-minute song that ends at the conclusion of a ghostly, even Spaghetti Western buildup, leaving the listener on the precipice at the end of an album.6.6
12. In Due Time
Following the dramatic buildup of “Raspberry Seed,” the album’s last song sounds more like a bonus track than it does the conclusion of PHOX. Martin’s voice is as central to this song as it is any other, but her voice is suddenly more like Bonnie Raitt’s than it is Etta James’. Accompanied by an acoustic guitar in her best campfire croon, time prevails again as a motif. At just two minutes, nineteen seconds, it’s a soulful track with an intimate second-person address that is as simultaneously full and spare as an eighty-second song can muster.8.1
Written by Lawrence Lenhart
Lawrence Lenhart received his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he was the editor-in-chief of Sonora Review. He is the recipient of two Foundation Awards, two Taube Awards, and the Laverne Harrell Clark Award in Fiction.

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