Flowers in the Attic

Pinetop Seven has put out two great records this year–the new album Rigging the Toplights and the EP No Breath in the Bellows, both on Truckstop/Atavistic–but the band’s CD-release party this Saturday will be its first local appearance in 14 months. It’s the finale of a six-week U.S. tour, prior to which Pinetop Seven had never toured for more than two days. Unfortunately for showgoers, multi-instrumentalists Charles Kim, Darren Richard, and Ryan Hembrey prefer to stay home, writing and recording in the raw attic over Kim and Richard’s Humboldt Park apartment. The payoff for this obsessive seclusion is the almost preternatural musical intuition that marks both records.

Kim, 29, and Richard, 27, first jammed not long after meeting at the radio station of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where both studied psychology, and they played together in a school jazz ensemble. But it was listening to records together that cemented their partnership. In January 1994, lured by the city’s reputedly fertile scene, they came to Chicago with bassist John Peeler to start a band; Kim also went to Chicago Kent law school and now works independently to help musicians with contracts. “By the time we moved up here we were listening to so many different kinds of music other than rock ‘n’ roll,” says Kim. “We started drawing from a different palette, and for the next two years we spent our spare time listening to as many different records as possible and talking about them. We started from scratch, trying to develop a sound that might be influenced by a lot of different things without sounding like a mish-mash.”

They spent most of 1995 working on their eponymously titled debut, which they released themselves the following year. Though in fact the album sounds very “mish-mash,” the cowboys on the cover and the inclusion of musical elements like Richard’s dusky twang, spare acoustic guitar strumming, and languorous slide guitar got the band quickly adopted by the burgeoning alternative-country scene. “We don’t disavow certain country elements in our music, but it’s like one in 20,” says Kim.

Peeler mysteriously dropped out toward the end of the recording. “We’re not really sure what happened to him,” says Richard. “He just kind of stopped coming over.” But the album sleeve credits five players–one of whom doesn’t exist and one of whom is actually a dog– because “we envisioned that once we started playing live we would need that many people to translate it.” Richard and Kim started playing out with a revolving cast of support musicians, but it wasn’t until they hooked up with bassist Hembrey, a DePaul music-school grad who played tango with Orquesta Atipica as well as pickup jazz gigs, that they permanently replaced Peeler.

Kim, Richard, and Hembrey retreated to the attic last fall to begin work on new material. The resulting recordings continue to draw on their diverse music collections–Captain Beefheart, Kurt Weill, Astor Piazzolla, Nino Rota, Tom Waits, Tim Buckley, Harry Partch, Ennio Morricone–but this time the blend is far smoother. The melodies are more sophisticated and the arrangements are lush without the lugubriousness of the first album. Richard’s singing is more assured and fluid, and he debuts a stunning falsetto that transforms the tune “The Fear of Being Found” from merely pretty to downright haunting.

For Saturday’s show the band will be fleshed out by drummer Dave Pavkovic and vibraphonist Jason Adaciewicz. Violinist Andrew Bird, who makes a cameo on Rigging the Toplights, opens with his band Bowl of Fire.

Number One Cup on Ice

Seth Cohen, guitarist for the Chicago pop band Number One Cup, says he felt a certain peace in the 15 minutes he spent sprawled out on the ice in total paralysis–it was only after some feeling oozed back into one arm and his feet that he began to panic. On September 23, Cohen was visiting his family near Danbury, Connecticut. An avid hockey player, he was at the local rink with his brother when he tripped over a goalie’s stick, barreled headfirst into the boards, and broke his third and fourth vertabrae. When he underwent surgery on the 27th, his left arm was out of commission; it’s still a little numb, but last Thursday he left the hospital and a complete recovery is expected.

If all goes well Cohen will return to Chicago just in time to attend the release party Friday at Lounge Ax for his band’s third album, People People Why Are We Fighting? (Flydaddy). Needless to say, with him in a neck brace for at least the next two months, Number One Cup’s set is canceled–but a dozen other bands will still perform. Reprising a gimmick it adopted for the release of its first album, Possum Trot Plan, the band had enlisted a raft of local acts–including Eleventh Dream Day, Menthol, Ashtar Command, Califone, Designer, We Ragazzi, and an ad hoc organ quartet led by ex-Coctail Mark Greenberg–to cover the songs from People in sequence.

The new album, on which oblique pop hooks battle concise guitar splatter, revolves thematically around “personal and professional conflicts and attempted resolution,” says Cohen, which is why promotional materials for the gig feature the four scrawny band members–Cohen, guitarist Patrick O’Connell, drummer Michael Lenzi, and bassist Kurt Volk, who replaced John Przyborowski after the album was made–in shirtless pugilistic poses. (They were inspired by an old poster for an Andy Warhol-Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition that pictured the two artists duking it out.) Cohen also considered hiring amateur boxers to spar between performances, but settled for decorating the stage like a boxing ring. The irrepressible Jake Austen, publisher of Roctober fanzine and coproducer of the public-access cable dance show Chic-a-Go-Go, will emcee.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pinetop Seven photo by Nathan Mandell; Seth Cohen photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.