As a lifelong Chicagoan, I’ve always found Wisconsin to feel a little behind the times. Through that, though, it held either a curious, old-fashioned charm or a frustrating lag. For every ‘50s-style supper club, there’s a Tommy Bartlett Exploratory, which touts a “Giant Lever!” I spent many a childhood summer weekend in a rundown but lovable four-room cabin in Burlington with my grandparents, and have so many fond memories of farm breakfasts, rowboats, and camping. Though there’s probably a cool, cutting-edge scene in Wisconsin I don’t know about, the place always felt retro-cool at best and eyeroll-passé at worst.
I come to this point not out of some zeal to trash Wisconsin, but rather to explain that it makes perfect sense that the latest album from RJD2, Dame Fortune, features a track called “The Sheboygan Left”. The entirety of the record, in fact, feels like it’s trailing a few years behind. It frequently doesn’t quite grasp the soulful, jazz-adjacent vibes of the Brainfeeder crew and similar coastal cool.
Much like Wisconsin, the man also known as Ramble Jon Krohn has produced some past-leaning jams that are too fun to deny. His 2002 debut studio album, Deadringer, was an instant classic, producing instrumental hip-hop by digging up everything from funk to flamenco. His “A Beautiful Mine” was used for the opening credits of Mad Men, and the tune tapped immediately into the show’s sensual intrigue and epic retro tone.
Dame Fortune opener “A Portal Inward” tells a different story, leaning more towards John Carpenter than Don Draper — though not as dark or moody as either. There’s a shimmering eagerness to the flaring synths, though the sound bends downward into “The Roaming Hoard”. The track aims for urgency with vocal admonitions to run and propulsive, though a bit thin, energy. The funk breaks sound suspiciously Mad Men no matter how many layers of bongo and sax you daub on.
Tracks like the bland soul growl of “Band of Matron Saints”, the sappy, piano-driven “Up in the Clouds”, and perhaps unsurprisingly from its title, “Your Nostalgic Heart and Lung”, get too bogged down in approximating an atmosphere or era to capture the energy and passion that defined that very atmosphere in the first place. It could be that “Your Nostalgic” features very few samples; RJD2 tries to recreate the world on his own, an admirable challenge he just misses on.
But when Dame Fortune succeeds, it does so through soulful excavation and textured world-building as well. “The Sheboygan Left” takes on Sesame Street funk keys, a sample repeating the name of the 13th largest city in Wisconsin in the background until it becomes more of a rhythmic tool than a signifier. The grandiose group vocals, splashing cymbals, synth squiggles, and funky bass lead are a goofy blast. The voice starts changing from Sheboygan to what could be “have fun” — and if it’s not saying that, it might as well be. “Peace of What” builds from swank, choppy strings, live drumming kicking the whole thing along. “We don’t believe you, can’t believe you, no,” guest vocalist Jordan Brown drops, and the head-bobbing soul cut feels as insistent and confrontational as that implies.
Perhaps the easy connection to Wisconsin would’ve been the word “cheese” all along. Because, even at its best, the album has to be enjoyed with a big, goofy grin, the kind that comes with knowing what you’re listening to is just a little cheesy, but it’s fun enough that you don’t mind.
Essential Tracks: “The Sheboygan Left”, “Peace of What”