Monday, April 23, 2012

Six Chicago Records To Soundtrack Your Spring

I'm somewhat ashamed to admit this but for a long time I never really did my homework when it came to the local Chicago music scene. When I first got into "cool" music in high school, I was living in the suburbs and focusing on the big musical guns - your Clashes, your Pixies, your OutKasts. As I went through college, I began to delve deeper but, living away from my hometown as I was, I didn't get much beyond Kanye, Wilco and a few other Chicago heavy-hitters. 

Since moving into the city after college I've worked my way way deeper and deeper into the city's pool of local artists like an old man slowly lowering himself into a steaming hot bath and it's been equally invigorating. Although I know I'm just scratching the surface, I've loved having the chance to start seeing groups multiple times around town, discover new artists and generally start to feel the sense of community that scenes build. It takes a certain kind of artist to choose to make it in Chicago. Working out of the coastal spotlight one has to have a bit of humility. The winters require fortitude and both the frenetic nature of local gigs and the difficulty to be noticed sure require a good work ethic. It's all these traits that help tie Chicago musicians of various stripes together. 

This list is by no means meant to be comprehensive of Chicago talent. Missing are local favorites such as garage-soul masters JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound, futuristic funksters The Eternals, the frighteningly talented and photogenic world-beaters Kids These Days or the irrepressible sibling scamps of White Mystery to name just a few. This is just a few releases that have soundtracked my spring and I can't help but feel would make yours better as well.

1. Radar Eyes - Radar Eyes  Buy it.
Call me old-fashioned but I have a real soft spot for bands with names that sound like rock band names - The Clash, The Strokes, Nirvana. Maybe it's the 70's AM associations, but Radar Eyes has a name so made for rock n' roll, I just knew I had to check them out as soon as I read it. After the first live show, I was hooked so much so that I waited a long six weeks for their new full-length album to finally come out on vinyl before listening - it was worth it. "Accident" and "Miracle" would seem to me to be obvious singles with mid-fi charm and hooks to spare but the real joy of this record is how the band's able to carve out its own warm buzzy sonic world that you could pull over your head like a sleeping bag. This is best illustrated on "Disconnection" but it's a thread that ties everything together from the rockers like "Summer Chills" to the electro-freakout that is "Side of the Road". 
Download: Disconnection, Summer Chills

2. Without You b/w Inside My Head - Bare Mutants  Buy it.
Also performing that night I first discovered Radar Eyes was another band whose middle-period Velvets feel has me so charmed that I decided to buy their single after the show. Bare Mutants was the band and their most recent single is another slice of introspective garage heaven. Heavy organ envelopes both of these songs along with sluggish vocals that gives the music a druggy, psychedelic haze. Neither song is a pick-me-up with the A-Side featuring Jered Gummere (also of The Ponys, Mannequin Men, etc.) singing longingly about a girl that he can't have over a drum beat that barely crawls along, matching the vocals mopieness. "Inside My Head" then comes flying in on a wash of feedback before organ and band join in creating just the right wall behind which to retreat from the world. Bare Mutants are apparently in the process of making a full-length album and I won't come a moment too soon.
Listen/Download: Inside My Head

2.5. You Can't Win - The Runnies  Download for free!
As if these first two bands weren't enough, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention The Runnies, which features Mary McKane of Outer Minds on what I later learned was a Farfisa organ and Russ Calderwood of Radar Eyes on six string (they are also engaged) as well as drummer Brett Swinney. I only discovered them by way of their footloose performance on Record Store Day at Saki and was delighted. I was even more delighted when they announced that they have a free album out. If it capture half of their live magnetism, it'll be easily worth your time.

3. Pre-Language - Disappears  Buy it.
There seems to be somewhat of a split among the fans of Disappears as to whether the band is best suited to be a noise-rock band with some pop elements or more of a punk/pop band that dabbles in noise rock. I have to say that I tend to believe the latter and therefor couldn't be happier with the band's third LP that came out this spring, Pre-Language. One might have assumed that after adding Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley the band might have gone the more abstract route but one would have been quite wrong. Pre-Language ditches some of the more drone-y, sludgy sounds that dominated last year's Guider for a set of tight (9 songs in 35 minutes) guitar jams that know that a motorik groove is a tool that can still be devastatingly effective when used sparingly. Opener "Replicate" and the title track both show off the record's strengths while "Joa" and "Love Drug" show that the band still isn't afraid to get weird. A record full of buzzing, scraping, blurping guitars, satisfyingly rich bass and un-flashy, bedrock drumming, it's no wonder the band was treated like conquering heroes at their recent Lincoln Hall show.
Listen/Download: Replicate, Hibernation Sickness

4. Rock n' Roll Monsters - Rambos  Buy it.
With a name like Rambos you might assume that this wouldn't be the most cerebral musical endeavor ever embarked upon. And you would be quite right. Fortunately, that's kinda the point. Rambos layer simple, scratchy riffs over pounding drum work and some goofy boy-girl, err I'm gonna say harmonizing to great effect. This is fun, catchy and almost mindless rock music with just enough spark to keep you coming back. How can anyone resist a song about shoes whose chorus starts "without your Chucks / your feet are fucked"? Topics are generally just that simple - "Rock 'n Roll", "Radio", "USA" deliver exactly what they promise. "Hiawatha" sounds like a summer camp song that they decided to turn high-powered rock but in a good way. Ultimately, my favorite would have to their doo-wop horror story "Vampire" which are two elements I didn't realized were waiting to be combined but made instant sense together afterwards. An album for the drive home at the end of the week that's happy, dumb and won't make you look stupid.
Listen/Download: Chuck Taylors, Vampire

5. In This - Jennifer Hall  Buy it.
I first stumbled across Jennifer Hall the way to I do so many local bands these days - through the good folks at Chicago Mixtape. A few weeks ago they featured "Like I Lie To You" on the tape and I was immediately stricken. It was an absolutely scorching torch song sung with gritty soul and performed by a band with enough fire to leave the place in ruins. It was enough to convince me to buy her 2011 album In This and I now have to admit that my top albums list from last year might be due for a revision. Hall has vocal chops that most indie musicians can only dream of and she puts them to good use on the album veering from brassy soul to rock n' roll growl to confessional whisper with equal success. The music follows her eclectic lead as the album combines a singer-songwriter/American standards vibe with that of a seasoned sixties pop-rock band that thunders one song, grooves in another then fades quietly into the background on the next. It's an album full of heartbreak and pathos that is much better listened to as a whole than sampled. In This has been a welcome companion on the way to work on both sunny and grey April mornings this year and I don't see it being dislodged any time soon.
Listen/Download: Like I Lie To You, Green and Blue

6. Ooh La La [EP] - Ornery Little Darlings  Buy it.
And finally we come to the Ornery Little Darlings. They were another Chicago Mixtape find and, unlike Jennifer Hall and her many faces, I pretty much was able to glean their MO entirely from that first song. "Logic of an Alcoholic" is a sung-spoken Lou Reed homage (although that might not be strong enough a word) dripping with sly sarcasm, playful male/female vocal back-and-forth, characters with names like "Wake-And-Bake Sally" and an quirky but memorable chorus. After hearing it, I had to explore the rest of the EP where it came from and I wasn't disappointed to see most, if not all of those type of elements in each song contained on it. "Home" is another shaggy dog story this time with Emmi Chen taking lead vocals which she sprinkles with suggestive thirst metaphors and the phrase "parched like a motherfucker". "Games" and "Build The Night" are both up-tempo rockers while "Three Way Death Play" is the most silly fun blues rock I've heard in a long time. The Darlings have also released a full-length as well as a few other songs but I'm pleased to still be working my way through Ooh La La. When artists are this fun to get into, you might as well take your time.
Listen/Download: Logic of an Alcoholic, Home

P.S. Did I mention how great and free BBU's mixtape is?

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