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.”