Alone in a Crowd
Both Edith Frost and Rebecca Gates moved to Chicago after serious losses: Frost, then an unknown singer-songwriter, fled New York and a failed marriage in late 1996; Gates, having parted ways with Spinanes drummer Scott Plouf, decided to leave her native Portland in early 1997. Both came here in hopes of finding creative support in the city’s independent music scene, and both have done so, probably to the envy of many other newcomers: Frost has recorded all three of her albums with musicians from the Drag City and Truckstop scenes, and Gates has regularly raided the Thrill Jockey roster for backup.
Their decisions not to lock themselves into working bands have pros and cons. Both women have enjoyed a certain flexibility and independence in their work, but touring and recording have to be arranged around the busy schedules of the support players–which may be why both are just now releasing their first new recordings since 1998.
The swirling psychedelia of Frost’s second album, Telescopic, produced by Royal Trux, seems to have been an anomaly: for the new Wonder Wonder (Drag City), she’s returned to Chestnut Station front man Rian Murphy, who produced her relatively austere debut. Most of the instrumental settings here are similarly restrained, framing Frost’s deceptively fragile voice with great empathy, but there’s actually a lot going on. Murphy brought in no fewer than 11 backing musicians, including pedal steel player Steve Dorocke, guitarists Rick Rizzo and Archer Prewitt, bassist Ryan Hembrey, violinist Susan Voelz, reedist Paul Mertens, drummer Glenn Kotche, and keyboardist Mark Greenberg; accordion swells, soft strings, and shimmering vibes color the foundation of strummed guitars, brushed drums, and minimalist piano with meticulous precision.
On the opener, “Cars and Parties,” with her imperfectly quivering vibrato, Frost references the more aggressive style of Liz Phair, and the jaunty title track employs a faux-Dixieland break, but most of the new tunes are unvaryingly gentle. There’s a handful of waltzes, including “The Fear,” whose bittersweetness is amplified as vaguely psychedelic organ lines replace the baroque guitar parts, and Frost recently told another reporter that she was aiming for a Cole Porter-style love song with “Easy to Love.” Her songwriting is stronger than ever, but I’d like to hear a little more propulsion behind her indelible melodies–at times the pacing is slightly narcotic.
Lyrically Frost hasn’t departed much from her favorite topics: heartbreak, betrayal, and good old-fashioned unrequited love. But the collection’s generally upbeat vibe and a handful of moderately hopeful tunes peg her as a hopeless romantic. On “Further” she advises someone, possibly herself, “Don’t give up the passion little girl / Don’t you ever let it die down / I know how you need his touch / I know how you miss him so much / There’s something that / Should be saved and locked away.” And even though she’s been rejected in “You’re Decided,” she sounds triumphant as the song fades, declaring, “As long as there’s a sparkle of light / In the ancient heavens / I will always love you like this.”
Frost has no shows planned until the fall, but she will perform songs from the new album on WNUR’s Airplay this Saturday, July 21. WNUR is at 89.3 FM; the show runs from 4 to 7 PM.
Though Gates’s last release, Arches and Aisles (Sub Pop), was billed as the third Spinanes album, it was essentially a solo project with a supporting cast from Chicago and Washington, D.C. For her new seven-song EP, Ruby Series, made for the small San Francisco label Badman, she took a similar approach. But where most of Arches and Aisles followed the same hard-hitting pop formula as the Spinanes’ first two albums, the new EP picks up the thread started by exceptions like the sensual slow soul number “Greetings From the Sugar Lick” and the breathy, introspective “Slide Your Ass.”
Ruby Series, coproduced mostly with Tortoise’s John McEntire, favors low-impact ballads kissed with electronics–in fact nothing rocks, not even remotely. Most of the songs are built from a foundation of spare guitar, upright bass by Noel Kupersmith, and keyboards and electronics by McEntire and his studio manager, Mikael Jorgensen. The record opens with the gorgeous “The Seldom Scene,” which weds Gates’s distinctive deep voice to a curvy melody worthy of Carole King or Laura Nyro. None of the other songs quite match it, but a few come close. On “In a Star Orbit” a low-key beatbox groove is layered with a cool two-chord synth pattern, then embellished with guitar, mellotron, and vibes as Gates creates tension with her leisurely presentation of the melody. “Doos,” which was produced by Brian Deck, comes close to the old Spinanes sound, with foregrounded guitar strumming, real drums, and Gates’s multitracked harmonies, but the Reichian vibes give it away. The record’s last two selections are totally beatless, so it kind of trudges home.
Gates is smart enough to sing within her somewhat narrow range, and though she lacks the nuance needed to keep the material interesting for seven consecutive songs, any of the tracks heard individually is downright lovely. She’s just departed on a tour with Kupersmith and Jorgensen; they’ll perform in Chicago this fall.
Percussionist Michael Zerang is as important to Chicago’s experimental music scene for what he does offstage as for what he does on. Since the mid-80s, when he began curating performances at Link’s Hall, he’s been a tastemaker, promoting events at a series of venues including Urbus Orbis, HotHouse, and Lunar Cabaret. Now he’s back at it with a cozy 35-seat space he’s calling the Candlestick Maker. Although performances at the space, which doubles as his rehearsal studio, will be sporadic, Zerang is kicking things off in grand style: starting this Saturday, July 21, he’ll perform 15 nights in a row in duos and trios with other local celebs, including cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm (on opening night), drummer Avreeayl Ra and instrument inventor Don Meckley (Tuesday), flutist Nicole Mitchell (Wednesday), and Zerang’s frequent collaborator Hamid Drake (next Tuesday). Shows start at 8 PM; admission is $10 or whatever you can afford. The Candlestick Maker is at 4432 N. Kedzie; the phone number is 773-463-0158. For more details consult the Reader jazz club listings or visit Zerang’s Web site: www.geocities.com/
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Whitney Bradshaw/Mark Nomura.