Home, Alone

Graham Smith has written nearly 500 songs since he first picked up the guitar at age 14. Big deal, right? So’s Bob Dylan. But Smith’s only 20, and despite never having played a note in a proper studio–he recorded many of the tunes in a spare bedroom at his parents’ house in Downers Grove–he’s put out several singles and three full-length albums and recently played to packed houses in Osaka and Tokyo. “It was amazing. People walked up to me on the street,” he says. “Not a lot of people, but a few.”

Smith is for most intents and purposes the band Kleenex Girl Wonder, which will headline at Lounge Ax this Friday in celebration of the release of its third LP, Ponyoak–Smith’s first release on the New York-based March Records, run by former Chicagoan John “Skippy” McFadden. Though the live set will feature a five-member lineup, Smith wrote all of the songs and produced, recorded, mixed, and played all the instruments on the album.

“I’d always rather record myself, and if that means spending a ton to get studio equipment and learning how to use it, then I’d rather do that,” says Smith, sitting beneath a big Beatles poster and in front of a fortress of computers and mixing boards while his mom fixes lunch in the kitchen. “I can’t write a song and then record it, I always do it all as I go along. Doing it yourself is so much easier than telling some incompetent bass player what to do anyway.”

Ponyoak’s 25 fully formed pop gems infect the sounds of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and Guided by Voices with an impatient teenage angst: Smith was still only 18 when he recorded the album in his freshman dorm room at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he’s majoring in English. As a singer, he doesn’t have much of a range, and sometimes his voice protests the places he’s trying to take it with pubescent squeaks. His recording job includes plenty of in-the-red rough patches, and there are still traces of the juvenile humor of his earlier releases–mostly song titles like “Ark of Godiva” (a pun on Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver) and “Graham Smith Is the Strongest Man Alive” (a thematic follow-up to his second album, Graham Smith Is the Coolest Person Alive). But he’s got a natural gift for pop songwriting, and his tunes quickly get stuck in your head–there isn’t a throwaway in the bunch.

Prior to Smith’s deal with March, all of Kleenex Girl Wonder’s releases were on MOC, the label started by Smith’s high school friend Kris Voss, now 21 and an assistant manager at a Kinko’s. “We were really scared that we were going to get stuck with a lot of records when we put out the first single,” says Voss. Their fears were well-founded: the 400 vinyl copies Voss pressed of the eight-song EP Exotic Nitwits Keep Exotic Pets didn’t exactly sell like hotcakes. But eventually distributors like Ajax and Carrot Top took notice, and the MOC catalog now boasts almost 20 singles by young pop acts like Oval-Teen and Beauty Pageant–who appear on the same Lounge Ax bill–as well as by veteran oddball Paul Caporino, aka M.O.T.O. But Kleenex Girl Wonder is the franchise, and Smith says he’ll continue to release his less commercial music on MOC–including his next album, Smith, due in January.


As detailed in last week’s Post No Bills, this weekend’s Viva Chicago! Latin Music Festival celebrates Mexican and Puerto Rican styles but little else. To hear something else from Latin America that’s truly something else, head to the city’s Summerdance stage (on Michigan Avenue in Grant Park between Harrison and Balbo) on Friday at 7:30 PM for Belize’s Andy Palacio & the Punta Rock Souljahs. Palacio is the progenitor of a style called punta rock–the pop music of the Garifuna people, who’re descended from indigenous Caribbeans and West African slaves who were shipwrecked on the island of Saint Vincent some 300 years ago. It’s a soulful, contemporary fusion of African rhythms and Caribbean styles like soca and calypso; the show’s preceded by dance lessons, taught by Sade Martinez, a singer in the group, at 6 PM.

R & B stars Dru Hill, Faith Evans, Shanice, Grenique, and War are among the headliners at Unity Day ’99, a “day of true community solidarity” for African-Americans sponsored by WGCI and V103. The free event takes place Saturday between 11 AM and 7 PM in Washington Park, 57th and Cottage Grove.

Last month producer and Chicago house music pioneer Ralphi Rosario released his first album, 45 Miles of Nerves (Afterhours), an expansive mix of diva-stoked four-on-the-floor thumpers peppered with ethereal drum ‘n’ bass, discoized opera, salsa, and some stray jazz fusion. Fresh off an English tour, he’ll spin at Karma on Saturday night.

Last week the Champaign emocore band Braid played its final show at Metro, and on Thursday, September 2, their local compatriots Lustre King will follow suit at the Empty Bottle, throwing in the towel after five years. They perform as part of the third annual Polyester Festival, on a bill with Dianogah, Atombombpocketknife, and the City on Film.

As interesting as the acidic production by Royal Trux was on Edith Frost’s Telescopic last year, hindsight reveals that simple suits her better. Frost’s new single “Love Is Real” (Drag City) was produced by Rian Murphy–who did such a good job on her debut, Calling Over Time–and features some lovely acoustic melancholia laid down by Archer Prewitt, Rick Rizzo, Ryan Hembrey, and Mark Greenberg.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

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