Monday, August 29, 2011

Artist Primer: Illinois

Illinois (the band) has stolen many an hour of my youth away from me. Were it not for them I might have never fallen down the music blog rabbit hole and spent endless hours on Hype Machine. It was summer 2007 and I read somewhere about this buzzy group called Illinois who had just released an EP. I streamed whatever song was on the site I was reading and I liked it, so I (being a poor college student) decided to cobble together what I could from the EP using nothing but mp3 blogs. I got the EP, loved it and went out of my way to catch their ridiculous 12:30pm set at Lollaplooza that year and a love affair was born. Not only did I have a new band but that day started me reading music blogs that have changed how I discover music.

Illinois is the kind of band that drove me to write a blog in the first place. They're one of those groups that every time I listen to one of their albums, at some point I'll turn to whomever I'm with and say "why aren't these guys like, fucking HUGE?" I mean even the twenty-five review a week machine that is Pitchfork declined to review their debut album, why? So this week On Warmer Music will start with a two-part Illinois extravaganza. First, a brief primer on who the hell these guys are and what they've been up to so far to get you caught up. Then, on Tuesday I'll be reviewing their new album, Lemonade Stand. So sit back, relax and strap it down, you're in for a treat.

Illinois is four guys from Bucks County, PA (naturally). Grade school friends Chris Archibald ("Arch") and Martin Hoeger formed the band which also includes multi-instrumentalist Dan Pawlovich and drummer John Paul Kuyper. These guys mix pretty piano balladry with ramshakle banjo freakouts and the occasional electro-pop nugget, add a gift for Beatles-esque melodies and come up with their own brand of indie anthems that will be rattling around your head for weeks after you hear them.

That EP that got them their initial buzz was called What The Hell Do I Know? and it was released in early 2007 to fairly good reviews. "Screendoor" was what first grabbed my attention, for good reason. It's two minutes of strummy pop goodness that never slows loses steam. The EP was also stacked with slow-building anthems like "Alone Again," "Headphones" and especially "One On One." Illinois proved that they could take a simple hook, start with a minimal instrumental bed and end with a wall of glorious sound that makes you wonder why Wilco never got into shoegaze.

Perhaps the most famous song off What The Hell was "Nosebleed." Arch loves him some banjo (as do I) and on this song he proves that it's not the novelty instrument you're probably thinking of. "Nosebleed" is banjofunk rave-up that should be the first song you play at the bar next Friday night. It became (semi) famous when Mary Louise Parker did her "Brick Dance" to the song in an episode of Weeds. (Oh, to live in a world where Illinois is on the radio!)

After What The Hell, Illinois toured for a while and released the We Were Wrong single in early 2008, the title track of which was fun enough but whose b-side, "Things Are Gonna Be OK" was an inspired take on Radiohead if they had, you know, fun... and optimism. Mostly, however, Illinois stayed off the major musical radar for over a year. I did seem them live in June 2008 and asked Arch when I could expect new music. He told me to expect new stuff at the beginning of the new year. "EPs" he said, "lots of 'em. It'll be weird but it'll be cool."

What he was talking about was actually their debut album The Adventures Of Kid Catastrophe. Rather than just release the album though, what Illinois did in late 2008 was start by releasing a series of two song "EPs" every month, each coming with a music video. The videos, when combined, told the story of the titular adventures and all the songs would later be released on the album. It was an bizzare move, bold, demanding of fans and pretentious as all hell but all done with a wink that said "we know this is ridiculous, but look how much FUN it is!" The finished result is interesting enough with some truly hilarious moments but a difficult watch at twenty-two minutes.
The album was undertaken with just as much chutzpah as the videos and mostly had the songs to back it up. Although it was technically their "debut" album, the band had been sitting on material for so long, they used it as a vault-clearing exercise, offering the album only as a 20 song download. Much as I love Illinois, clearly waiting two years to follow up on your breakthrough EP and then delivering not a concise statement-of-purpose but rather a massive layer cake of musical ideas, some great, some unfinished, is NOT the textbook way to build a fan base.

To be fair though, Kid Catastrophe is an honest reflection of the band. The album sounds like nothing so much as the result of four boys being cooped inside together all summer, recording whatever came to mind. There's tinkly ballads ("Missing Piece"), popppy throwaways ("How Do You Feel?"), meandering instrumentals ("Not Totally Gone"), electronic epics ("Tree") and plenty of drunken rave ups ("Old Saloon"). The whole thing sounds like the many shades of a lost summer in Bucks County and that's not a bad thing. Arch's songwriting already clever, funny, and surprisingly tender, got even better on songs like "Are You Coming With Me?" and "An Open Door," while still showing off his pop chops on tunes like "Hang On" and "She's So Funny." Although the album wasn't exactly a commercial stepping-stone, it was filled with so many amazing songs and potential musical directions that it only whet the appetite for album number two.

I've got some of the highlights of Illinois' career so far for download below, but believe me that there's just as many great songs not on this list as on it. Tomorrow, a review of their new album Lemonade Stand!

Screendoor (from What The Hell Do I Know? [EP])
One On One (from What The Hell Do I Know? [EP])
Oh Asia (unreleased, Daytrotter Session)
Are You Coming With Me? (from The Adventures Of Kid Catastrophe)
She's So Funny (from The Adventures Of Kid Catastrophe)
Missing Piece (from The Adventures Of Kid Catastrophe)
An Open Door (a gorgeous pedal-steel alternate version from Daytrotter)

Buy What The Hell Do I Know? and The Adventures Of Kid Catastrophe.
They've also had two very fruitful Daytrotter Sessions.


  1. I'm pretty sure I gave the lead singer a drunk hug this one time