To be fair, the Service has always made records full of good songs. But for each Chicago rock fan who digs this locally based group, there have long been many more who scoff. I used to be one of them. Until a few months ago, the Service was a band I had tried hard to get excited about, but couldn’t. I could never quite put my finger on the problem, and it used to drive me crazy.

Formerly a five-member group, the Service recently became a quartet with the departure of lead singer David Briggs, and the job of front man has passed to the group’s guitarist and principal songwriter, Rick Mosher. The result is a telling change in the band’s feel and approach. It’s now clear that while Briggs was unarguably a singer of impressive skill and range, his style was at odds with the kind of material Mosher writes. Mosher leans toward direct confessions of loneliness and despair that seem sprung straight from a world of very private pain. It’s the type of stuff that works best when sung with a sense of understatement. Unfortunately, Briggs “oversung” as some actors overact–only in this case it wasn’t so much a case of bad aesthetic judgment as simply a mismatch between material and interpreter. The results could be grating.

Mosher doesn’t possess Briggs’s technical vocal resources, but he does have a flat nasal whine that meshes well with Kenn Goodman’s atmospheric keyboards. Together they evoke the anxiety one might feel when looking out the window of a fast-moving car to see endless Great Plains emptiness stretching out flat as the ocean (the Service is a midwestern-sounding band if there ever was one). While Briggs’s singing with the group had a distancing effect, Mosher is able to draw the listener more tightly into the songs. In one stroke the Service has become a Chicago band to be reckoned with.

Before the change, the mismatch between singer and song crippled Mosher’s muse. “I didn’t write a song for almost a year that was worth doing,” he says, “because my heart wasn’t in it if I thought it was going to be interpreted wrong.” But now, he gets to sing his own songs, giving them that particular interpretation that–aside from any notion of rightness or wrongness–can come only from the person who wrote the stuff and knows intimately the circumstances under which each line took shape. “There’s a real theme of entropy running through a lot of our songs,” he says. “A lot of them deal with having to cope with things that I put myself into by being in a band, by dropping out of school, by not having a full-time job, by drinking, or whatever. In most cases it’s kind of a theme of disintegration. I’m comfortable with that because I’m not by nature very optimistic.”

That shows. The most recent Service LP, George’s Duty Free Goulash, contains at least two songs (“Things I Can’t Buy” and “Dumbwaiter”) about being broke and dissatisfied. Then there’s the haunting “Damon Downes,” which apparently is about a guy who burns down the buildings on a farm and gets out of town before anyone can catch him. “You’ll Come Back” is a break-up song in which the singer tries to fool us with a brave facade, made possible only by his probably mistaken belief that the girl will soon return. And even in the rousing “Faithful Now,” the singer’s too-insistent promises of romantic fidelity seem curiously bitter; they sound like the uneasy resolution to a really awful fight (“Take what you want, it’s all yours anyway / Take what you want, throw the rest away”).

The new four-man Service also features recent addition Gary Elvis Schepers, who’s certainly one of the more colorful stage presences on the Chicago rock scene and nobody you’d want to run into in a dark alley. Formerly the band’s sound man, the formidable Schepers now plays bass and doubles on tuba (that’s tuba, not sousaphone, which requires that Schepers sit down on the stage with the horn in his lap and blow into an overhead boom mike). The lineup debuted recently at Cabaret Metro, and they sounded just great, tearing through an assortment of originals drawn from their three records (the 1985 Zebu EP, the 1986 America’s Newest Hitmakers LP, and 1987’s Goulash) and ending with a scrappily intense rendition of “Shambala,” the 1973 B.W. Stevenson/Three Dog Night hit.

The new lineup has yet to appear on vinyl. “When I think about recording I’m anxious again,” says Mosher, “because I want to see what happens with me singing. I wish I had a better voice, but I don’t really care. I’m singing the songs as if I’ve just learned them. That’s really exciting.”

The Service will perform Wednesday night at Cabaret Metro, 3730 N. Clark, sharing the bill with Full Fathom Five and the Indigos. First set starts at 10 PM; cover is $4. Call 549-0203 for details.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sheila Sachs.