Since putting out its great 2005 debut, Dance Casador!, local folk-rock outfit The Championship has been a vibrant feather in the cap of Milwaukee music. That is to say, it was—until the band abruptly stopped playing shortly after the release of the 2009 EP Moving At The Speed Of Darkness. Frontman Joe Crockett began performing Championship-heavy solo sets, while lap steel/guitarist Allen Cote struck out on his own as well. Then, almost as quickly as The Championship faded away, it returned, this time with a slight change in lineup—and, as evidenced by the eight-song High Feather, a striking maturation in sound.
Technically, the fourth and latest Championship release is a seven-song effort, as 90-second instrumental intro “Quiet Cataclysms” seems to serve more as a causeway to decided single “My Heart Goes Out To You” than anything else. Draped in the dual layers of Crockett’s distinctive molasses-soaked baritone and the powerful plucking of new guitarist (and Milwaukee stage veteran) Quinn Scharber, “My Heart” sets High Feather’s overwhelmingly downtrodden tone. Chaser “Lonely Stranger” follows suit with a similarly desolate chorus: “Your heart is so beautiful / And your life is so miserable / Oh no one can tell that you’ve lost your mind this time.”
Elsewhere, “The Engine” and “Reckless Heart” seem to conjure an alt-country likeness to bleak songs in the vein of REM and Fleetwood Mac, respectively. As puzzling as the band opting to wear its heart on the outside for once is (as opposed to sticking to songs about Upper Michigan townships and after-bar unrest), the emotive about-face proves to be effective. In fact, “Fall Is Here,” High Feather’s only up-tempo offering, is also its worst by a wide margin. As refreshing as it is to have The Championship back in full, the apparent scars incurred in hiatus, unabashedly on display in High Feather, only serve to add an aura of depth and versatility to a longtime Milwaukee favorite.