Saturday, November 5, 2016

In Memoriam: saki (2010-2016)

I first moved to Logan Square in late summer 2010. It was a brave new world for me - my first time living on the northside. Fresh out of college and student teaching, I didn't yet have the physical or financial stability for a vinyl collection but I was determined to explore the neighborhood. On my second day in my new neighborhood I went for an exploratory walk and, amidst a sea of of taquerias and by-the-slice places I ran into a seemingly out-of-place record store on Fullerton called saki. I immediately knew I'd found something.

That little shop became my first neighborhood place in Logan. By that I mean, it was something I could put in a sentence like "you should check out my neighborhood ______ place, it's great". I felt a kinship with saki. We both loved music, had similar taste and were barely hanging on at the edge of the neighborhood's music scene. It was an anchor in the landscape of my new life. Like my local bar or grocery store (The Double and Tony's, for the record), it became a part of my personal geography as a place that felt intensely like home.

It's also what helped drive me into record collecting. Although I still cringe at the fact that vinyl obsession is just another form of consumerist self-medication, it's MY medication and it helps get me do normal, dammit. As the mp3 blog world of the mid-to-late '00s gave way to the even mightier deluge of omnipresent "musical content" (although clearly this blog found out five years too late), I've become one of those assholes who has deep-seated convictions on the joys and benefits engaging regularly with music put out on physical objects with art on the cover and rich sound and all that crap. saki was my kiddie pool, helping me wade carefully into a new way of exploring music.

It's where I bought my copies of The MonitorLondon Calling and Double Nickels On The Dime. Do you KNOW what owning critically-acclaimed, genre-challenging punk double albums means to bearded record nerds of a certain age? And if I needed the newest Bloodshot release or Kendrick record or just a place to find something totally unexpected, I had an oasis less than a 10 minute walk from my knee-bumpingly cramped one-bedroom walkup. It wasn't necessarily a beneficial proximity, especially after losing my first teaching job and often skated by on double digit bank balances for far longer than advisable. Still, at the time it felt like a good way to waste my youth and I stand by that.

The allure of the unexpected is what makes it especially appealing. Earlier this year I was browsing aimlessly through saki's Local Artist bin and I stumbled on an LP with a really sweet-looking cover and decided to purchase it for that reason alone. It turned out to be Bill Tucker's Punk Fills / Sad Bad Mittens compilation. As I've since moved, dealt with family medical issues and just generally tried to weather the unrelenting shitstorm that is 2016, I've often found myself seeking the sweaterlike comfort of his guitar and nasaly ruminations on life. It's the kind of record-I-never-knew-I-needed that I come in expecting to find and am rarely dissapointed.

I love the non-algorithmic serendipity of having a place to come and rub musical stones together and see if anything sparks. saki was particularly designed for this, lacing in weird noise records and the complete Sun Ra discography amongst the St. Vincent record I'd originally come in to buy. It was a place to enjoy art, familiar and unexpected. There was always local art and/or posters for sale hung with reverence on the walls and a small bookshelf where you could pick up anything from zines to 33 1/3 installments to John Darinelle's latest novel. 

Baby Money & Beer
They were also a surprisingly great place to see live music. Although I love a cramped record cave, saki's airy layout with a small stage and open area contrasted nicely with most records stores. Here in-stores didn't require trying to cram oneself awkwardly amongst aisles of records, craning and straining to see the artist. The store's giant plate glass windows were also a plus. They would absolutely drench the room in sunlight, giving whomever was onstage an air of having a natural spotlight and it made the pretentious can of beer you'd bought on the way taste that much sweeter.

The shows I most remember were mostly populated by scene faves like The Runnies or Baby Money, with the occasional local heavy hitter like JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound (which I might have mentioned before). Then every once in a while they'd even grab someone like Superchunk and you felt proud that they'd managed to drag indie royalty into your grubby neck of the woods. They also promoted the hell out of live music outside their walls with an ongoing deal where they'd give you a guestlist spot at upcoming live shows if you bought the band's record beforehand. For places like Lincoln Hall or Empty Bottle, this essentially amounted to getting a couple of tickets for below face and a free LP to boot. I never understood why that alone didn't have them mobbed every time a new show was announced but such is fate.

On Thursday, Adam Hirzel and Patrick Monaghan announced that, due to the closure of Carrot Top Distribution, the company driving the store, saki will shut its doors as of December 1st, adding yet another tribulation to the biblical trial that is 2016. Although the news hit me hard, I can't say that I was surprised. As often as not I would stop by on my way home from work and browse for half hour as the store's only customer. Being as far west as they were, they weren't exactly a hotbed for foot traffic. I was spoiled but for most people it was a schlep and, with records stores sprouting up like mushrooms on the northwest side, record buyers didn't lack for other options.

Still, I'll always have fond memories of Adam behind the register chatting with me as I checked out and inevitably talking me into having them order the latest Feelies re-issue or tweeting me when the new Angel Olsen was back in stock, lest I miss out again. I'm sure I was fish in a barrel. Meanwhile Patrick, despite being a Cubs fan, is a wonderfully old soul and one of the finest twitter follows in Chicago (and beyond), especially if you wanna get woke on the scourge of urban light pollution. These are the kind of people who made Logan Square feel like an actual community full of wonderful human beings, not just another "hot neighborhood".

So let me just close by saying a heartfelt thank you to these cool dudes and all the other great folks who helped make saki a thing for these last six-and-half years. You created something meaningful that will always hold a special place in my heart. And on my shelves.

Friday, March 28, 2014

On Warmer Music's Spring 2014 Mix

via Chicago Colors
By this point in the year, most of my friends are pretty sick of me but this year, I'm starting to fear for my safety. As you might remember, I'm one of the few Chicagoans who is an unapologetic fan of winter. Far from a popular position in an average year, this year it was the kind of thing that had visions of torches and pitchforks dancing in Chiberians frostbitten heads.

But even after a winter as historically bleak as this one I will still defend my love of true winter because it makes the spring all that much sweeter. This morning I smiled because it was raining. Rather than snowing. In late March. Only someone whose dealt with freezer burn on their lungs could find happiness in a drippy, 40 degree day.

Indeed spring in the midwest is a brief and flighty thing that exists for, at most, six non-consecutive weeks between March and early June but it's no less glorious because of it. A long-time spring fever sufferer, I still dream every year of the utterly giddy feeling I got in college when the season's first day over 50 when I could get away with skipping an afternoon class, throwing together a mixtape and go tooling down country roads to find a place to walk amidst woods and birds.

Don't get me wrong, as a whole, spring 'round these parts is perhaps the least satisfying season. But like that girl/boy/other you always had a crush on growing up, the brief moments when the light shines on you are unbelievably heady in a ways a solid. steady relationship/season (OK, this metaphor is getting out of hand) never quite could.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vinyl Vacation: L.A.M.F. Revisited - The Heartbreakers

Doesn't the world of pop music ever seem hopelessly expansive to anyone else? And by "hopelessly", I of course mean "thrillingly"... unless it's the first one.

The thing about being an intellectually inquisitive (at times veering dangerously towards acquisitive) person, especially in the 21st century is that there will always be infinitely more stuff to know than anyone, even one guided by supposedly impeccably high standards of taste could possibly hope to take in. So even as someone who's spent far more time than most reasonably socialized people diving into snobby depths of various strands of pop, punk, hip-hop, R&B, folk, indie and whatever else meets my very high and somewhat arbitrary standards of worthy music, I still have more glaring gaps in my knowledge than I like having to admit.

Just as declaring oneself a history major makes one keenly self-aware of the vast amount of recorded humanity of which you have only the very faintest hints of knowledge, writing semi-seriously about music will drive the self-aggrandizing intellectual into spasms of guilt over their own shortcomings.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Concert Review & Pictures: Ex Hex & Priests at Schubas, March 18, 2014

All Photos Courtesy of Matt Conzen

Humans are bad time-keepers. For example, it seems like just last year that I was rocking out to Wild Flag at the Empty Bottle while it seems like forever since Matt Conzen starting shooting shows with me. And yet both of those events were, in fact, two-and-a-half years ago - go figure. Now Wild Flag is no more, Mary Timony is rolling through Chicago with her new project, Ex Hex and, fortunately, Matt Conzen is still snapping away with me.

Last Tuesday's show was an all-ages special, which despite all the griping that usually accompanies such a designation, I was excited for. Generally I enjoy high schoolers getting their first taste of the endorphin rush of live music and God knows in this case I felt that no teen in Chicago wouldn't benefit from seeing the ass-kicking, no-names-taking bill being presented this night.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Concert Review & Pictures: Ice Balloons, Kyp Malone & Coins at The Empty Bottle, March 10, 2014

All Photos Courtesy of Matt Conzen
Having a big name member can be a blessing or a curse for a new band. On the one hand, they'll help you garner attention but, on the other, a lot of that attention is going to come with some strong expectations that have nothing to do with you. It was precisely this tension between expectations and reality that made Monday night's show at the Empty Bottle so exhilarating.

It was a free show and most of the advertising focused on Kyp Malone, of TV On The Radio fame, who was playing a solo set sandwiched in between local duo Coins and another project in which he plays, Ice Balloons. Given the attendance pattern, it was clear that most of the night's attendees were TVOTR fans interested in seeing their idol. I would wager that fewer than a quarter of the audience had any familiarity with Malone's solo work (released under the name Rain Machine), never mind that of the other bands, but here they were anyway. It was, a relatively full house of people excited to hear... something.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Concert Review - Empty Bottle Winter Block Party, March 1, 2014

Courtesy of Matt Conzen's phone.
At this point, all we can do in Chicago is lean into the winter. I mean, it's made it clear that it's not going anywhere so all we can do is wear our #Chiberia hashtags like a badge of pride. Besides, harsh winters have always been a part of Chicago's DNA. Even as it's become "international city", Chicago has never been a gathering place for celebrities either entertainment (LA), literary/business (NYC) or political (DC) and it's easy to see why - for at least five months of the year, you to have some starch in your shirt and iron in your spine to enjoy life in the city by the lake ice cube.

So a block party in the snow seemed like the perfect way to close out (or at least begin to close out) this 3rd coldest winter in our city's recorded history. The wonderful people at the Empty Bottle were behind this endeavor, which could not have been more fitting. Their scruffy, eclectic but still-discerning approach to music was note-perfect (if you will) for this kind of patently ridiculous celebration. 
In fact, the perfect distillation of the event's spirit came earlier in the afternoon when an Empty Bottle employee asked everyone in the crowd to look up towards a second floor window where the owner was snapping photos of the crowd. Per their instructions we all looked up, smiled and gave the camera the traditional one-finger salute.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The 10 Best Non-Wilco Jeff Tweedy Songs

As I type this, the curtains in my front windows are swinging softly in the breeze. What's problematic about this is that it's currently below zero here in Chicago and my windows are sealed tight. Unfortunately, that gentle sway is here to remind that my apartment's shitty single-pane windows are no match for the arctic vortices that, along with a seemingly-constant snowfall have defined this winter. But unlike everyone else in the goddamn country, I'm not complaining about winter being cold. I'm a well-documented fan of winter and I view this year's as more of a corrective to the watered-down global warming winters we've had of late.

I've found that I often use the winter to circle back to old passions of mine -

books, movies and, of course, bands that I used to OBSESS over but maybe hadn't thought of much in recent months or years. There's something about the cold and darkness, the silence and gorgeous-end-of-the-world feeling about a deep, snowy winter that brings me back to my roots and this winter that's meant listening to a lot of Jeff Tweedy.

Having been writing songs for nearly a 25 years, I don't think it's premature or out-of-line to say that Tweedy's proven himself to be part of line of great American songwriters that runs through greats like Cohen, Young, Newman or Dylan. He's always managed to balance his raucous D.I.Y. background, inveterate exploratory yen and love of classic American forms to produce songs that sound like instant classics without ever being too dated.

As I plowed through his impressive catalog, I decided that I wanted to take the time to highlight some of his music that your casual twentysomething Wilco fan might not have stumbled across. After starting with an all-time favorite cover of mine, I'm moving into lists, starting today. Thus I present you with a 10 of great songs written by Jeff Tweedy for his many side projects, super-groups and other bands that aren't Wilco.