File Under Anglo

On Saturday night at Lounge Ax, the Chamber Strings will celebrate the release of their debut album, Gospel Morning. For those who missed it, which is most of the world, Gospel Morning actually came out in October 1997–on the D.C. label Idiot Savant Music, in an edition of 1,000. When Idiot Savant folded a year later, the album was left for dead. But thanks to the Aurora-based label Bobsled–the stateside home to European pomo popsters Stereo Total and Adventures in Stereo–it’s getting a deserved second chance.

Bobsled honcho Bob Salerno, who’d never heard of the band, took a chance on one of those 1,000 copies early last year on a visit to Reckless Records. Shortly thereafter he asked Chamber Strings bandleader Kevin Junior to join the roster of his fledgling imprint. “I’ve got most of the material for the next record, and I could’ve just as well done that,” says Junior. “But we thought it would help the next record if more people knew about us.” The CD version of the reissue does include three new tracks that were recorded in October, including a duet with former Squash Blossom front woman Chiyoko Yoshida on Burt Bacharach’s “Baby It’s You.”

Gospel Morning, a collection of decidedly retro but well-executed melancholy Anglophile pop, is Junior’s most accomplished recording yet, and he’s hardly a newcomer to the Chicago music scene. Between 1987 and 1993 he fronted the glam-rock outfit Mystery Girls, then spent two years with the Rosehips, who were heavily influenced by the romantic, boozy folk-rock of England’s Jacobites. (He still dresses the part.) A few years earlier the guitarist had befriended the Jacobites’ Nikki Sudden and his brother, Epic Soundtracks, both of whom first made their mark in the influential late-70s band Swell Maps, while they were on separate solo tours in the U.S. With the demise of the Rosehips, he began playing guitar for both brothers, often on the other side of the pond.

Junior says his stint with Soundtracks was instrumental to the genesis of the Chamber Strings. “I was inspired by his ability to get his complete vision down without the help of anybody else, and I learned a lot musically from playing with him,” he says. “In order to get what you really want it’s really tough to have a democracy.” Lava Sutra drummer Anthony Illarde soon joined Soundtracks’s band too, and in their downtime the two Chicagoans put together the first incarnation of the Chamber Strings. They began recording Gospel Morning in late 1996, planning to split time between Soundtracks’s band and their own.

When the album was first released Junior was in Europe with Soundtracks; a few days after he came home, the 37-year-old Englishman was found dead (by his own hand, it was suspected) in his London apartment. “Last year was really horrible for me, but Chamber Strings kept me busy,” Junior says. “I wasn’t inspired at all, and not until the last few months have I really started to get back into it.”

The band, which currently includes Illarde, former Lava Sutra guitarist Tim Fowler, and bassist Ellis Clark, plans to be on tour much of the spring and summer. Junior hopes to make the next record at summer’s end in Memphis with Big Star producer Jim Dickinson. Besides Epic Soundtracks and Big Star, the Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles, and Phil Spector are strong influences, and Junior expects his growing interest in 60s soul and Brill Building pop will manifest itself on record number two as well. “I want to do more with the arrangements,” he says. “I thought we touched on that by bringing in brass and strings on Gospel Morning, but I want to go crazy on them this time.”

Wacos Hit Their Limits

The Waco Brothers also celebrate the release of a new record this weekend, with performances Saturday and Sunday at Schubas. The sextet’s fourth, Wacoworld (Bloodshot), reaches beyond its trademark scrappy country punk with mixed results. Dean Schlabowske’s Band-inflected “Hello to Everybody” edges gracefully away from straight honky-tonk, and Tracey Dear’s “Regrets” is a smart pop tune, but this predominantly British combo should know better than to add to the blues-rock slag heap with “The Hand That Throws the Bottle Down,” and the album’s bigger production seems a little at odds with the combo’s bar-band ethos. Still, there are worse things a band can take than chances.

Pope Gets Religion

With their tidy plaid shirts and their heart-on-sleeve love songs, the Smoking Popes always seemed a shade more wholesome than their punk-pop peers. Turns out that stuff was just the tip of the iceberg: last week front man Josh Caterer left the band to devote his time and talent to Jesus. “I’ll basically continue to write pop songs, but they’re all going to be about the gospel,” he says.

Caterer first embraced Christianity a few years ago. “Things were going very well for me,” he says. “The band was signed, I married the girl of my dreams. It kind of sounds like a cliche, but I had everything I wanted but I still felt empty. So I tried excessive drinking and recreational drug use, and that, after a while, led me to a point where I began to seek God.”

He had an epiphany at a Popes show last summer, when he noticed how most of the kids in the audience were singing along, hanging on his every word. “I asked myself, ‘What am I saying to them? What am I giving them?’ and I realized the only thing I could give them that would be of any value to them would be Jesus Christ,” he says. “I expect lots of our fans to be surprised by it, although I think some of them got the feeling that I was moving in this direction.”

The Popes parted ways with Capitol Records in December and are presently shopping an all-covers album that was recorded before the split. The remaining members–Mike Felumlee and Caterer’s brothers, Eli and Matt–have decided to disband, but they plan to release a compilation of early Popes singles this spring on a new label of their own. Josh Caterer plans to release an EP of solo acoustic versions of traditional gospel songs next month.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kevin Junior photo by Jim Newberry.