How the Other Half Sounds

It’s been more than three years since Billboard christened Chicago the next Seattle, but most of the bands that have proved consistently interesting are ones that fell outside the trade magazine’s narrow scope. If anything Chicago’s “scene,” such as it is, is healthier than ever. With the exception of Smashing Pumpkins, many of the major players from back then are either gone (Material Issue) or forgotten (Urge Overkill), but the first few months of 1997 promise a mother lode of hotly anticipated new releases from Chicago acts–Veruca Salt, Red Red Meat, Eleventh Dream Day, Number One Cup, Smoking Popes, the Waco Brothers, and Liz Phair among them. And a spate of recent releases proves there’s been no shortage of activity in the meantime. Some of the more notable among them are:

Bundy K. Brown, Doug Scharin, and James Warden Directions in Music (Thrill Jockey): Bassist Bundy Brown left Tortoise before the group recorded its second album, and though his absence is noticeable on the follow-up, Directions in Music clarifies what he contributed while he was in. Rex drummer Scharin, 40K guitarist Warden, and Brown fuse gentle arpeggios, earthy slide guitar, dub spaciousness, and throbbing grooves into a fluid whole.

C-Clamp Meander and Return (Ohio Gold): While this band’s wide dynamic range, crawling tempos, and hushed melodicism recall bands like Slint and Codeine, C-Clamp’s attack is much more rock than those of its forebears. For all the languid singing of guitarist Tom Fitzgerald and bassist Nick Macri, the melodic filigree and drawn-out tension of their influences is replaced by a bracing, tightly executed firepower that in weaker moments borders on math-rock flatulence.

Designer “Vandal” (Organico) and “Vandal (Brown Rice Remix)” (Soul Static Sound): Idful recording engineer Casey Rice has come a long way from playing punk rock in Dog and guitar with Liz Phair. As Designer he’s become one of Chicago’s premier drum ‘n’ bass DJs–he just completed (with John Herndon and John Hiler) a terrific jungle remix of a song by fey British popsters Placebo–and he’s making some striking abstract dance music of his own. While there are traces of electro, dub, and drum ‘n’ bass on these two 12-inch singles, Rice’s trippy production renders most reference points moot.

MOTO Single File (Mind of a Child): Guitarist-singer Paul Caporino has continued on with his pop band MOTO (Masters of the Obvious) since drummer Beck Dudley moved away a couple of years ago, but the collection Single File is limited to the remarkable flurry of seven-inch singles the duo released between 1988 and 1994. While the earliest stuff is dense with deliberately puerile genital humor, Caporino’s knack for timeless hook making remains constant throughout this 64-minute, 28-song compendium.

Pinetop Seven Pinetop Seven (Self-Help): This sextet is still finding its way, using Son Volt and Lambchop as landmarks, but between Darren Richard’s warm and dusky vocals and Charles Kim’s tasteful, occasionally daring guitar they have potential. Though weighed down by a hyperawareness of No Depression trendiness and a tendency toward needlessly peculiar instrumentation, the Seven’s unlikely pairing of off-kilter structures with country melodicism can result in a gorgeous tune like “40 Watt Bulb.”

Bob Rising Bob o’Clock (Throwrug): Pulling a lo-fi Dave Grohl, drummer Rising (formerly of Repulse Kava, Seam, Poster Children, and Hardvark) plays all the instruments on this album, which he recorded on a four track in 1993. “Witch” feebly parodies death metal, but most of the tunes have a mild pop charm enhanced by Rising’s goofy lyrics. “(Oh!) I Had a Dream” name-checks Crispus Attucks and Harvey Korman, while “Panther Softball” delivers dopey sexual double entendres like “I’m gonna stir that batter up / I’m gonna come from behind / Shoot it right down the line.” Rising has been playing out with a band he calls the Scenario.

Tortoise “Galapagos 1” and “The Taut and the Tame” (Thrill Jockey): The final two 12-inch remixes of songs mostly from Tortoise’s album Millions Now Living Will Never Die veer toward drum ‘n’ bass. On the first, British junglists Spring Heel Jack transform the Morricone-esque “Along the Banks of Rivers” into a twitching dialogue of sullen twang, furiously shuffling breakbeats, and blasts of subwoofer-rumbling bass. Jim O’Rourke’s flip side, a staggering cut-and-paste arrangement called “Reference Resistance Gate,” incorporates a variety of Tortoise songs with material from outside sources, simulating the sound of drum ‘n’ bass but delivering something far more complex and challenging. On the other 12-inch, Luke Vibert (aka Plug, Wagon Christ) forces “The Taut and the Tame” through a dense thicket of drum programming, while on the flip Bundy Brown distends a couple of vibraphone chords from “Wait” (from the AIDS benefit compilation Offbeat) into a hypnotic swirl.

Various artists CIA via UFO to Mercury (Atavistic): Originally issued in 1994 in a vinyl edition of 470, this raw, frantic compilation captures the nascency of what has since come to be regarded as Chicago’s neo-no wave movement. While the Flying Luttenbachers still exist (with a different lineup), most of the bands here are already memories, including the Scissor Girls, Math, Condeucent, and Trenchmouth. Recorded live in a variety of venues both defunct (Lower Links, HotHouse, Czar Bar, Hub Theater) and still operating (Empty Bottle, Gallery Cabaret), their music bristles with confrontational energy, an unrefined predilection for pure noise, and an enthusiasm, if not always aptitude, for experimentation. Some of this is pure solipsistic wankery, but this thriving scene provides a much-needed antidote to Chicago’s more visible but largely tedious pop-rock activity.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Casey Rice photo by Brad Miller/ various album covers.