.22 The Worker (Roydale) I wince when folks talk about the “Chicago sound”–there are just too many different kinds of music in town for such a generalization to make sense. But some styles do prevail more than others. For instance, elements of the first Tortoise record–nimble bass melodies, wide-open drumming–have spread like dandelion seeds over the past decade. This second record from .22, which recalls other post-Tortoise output by combos like Dianogah and Pinebender, features zigzagging bass and pronounced shifts in dynamics. Front man Brian O. adds spare guitar accents and shadings, and sings with the sort of doleful articulation that helps make Silkworm so compelling; unfortunately .22 lacks that band’s songwriting skills.
APHROHEAD Thee Underground Made Me Do It (Clashbackk) Last year veteran Chicago house producer Felix Stallings Jr. (aka Felix Da Housecat) rode the electroclash wave to modest fame and fortune with Kittenz & Thee Glitz, a savvy mix of electro, Prince, and synth pop. But as Aphrohead (one of his many aliases) he serves up the kind of relentless four-on-the-floor house and techno tracks that have been paying his rent since 1986–when, at the age of 15, he scored the club hit “Phantasy Girl” with DJ Pierre. Unfortunately the endlessly looping electronic grooves, with only dub and EQ effects to distinguish them from Casio presets, are a chore to listen to at home.
BLUE SHADE WITNESS Blue Shade Witness (Double Zero) This young but surprisingly polished quartet makes its debut with six wholly unoriginal radio-ready anthems that amp up the sensitive Britpop of bands like Coldplay and Travis with stadium-size drumming. Joel Bennett cops Michael Stipe’s vulnerable falsetto, Aaron Ruse plays effects-heavy guitar a la the shoegazers, but most tellingly the band cites the Goo Goo Dolls as an influence–it’s easy to imagine them heading down the same hypercommercial path.
THE LIKE YOUNG Art Contest (Parasol) Husband and wife Joe and Amanda Ziemba have been playing together in dorky bands like Wolfie and Busytoby for six years, and while this latest project, a duo, isn’t dramatically more sophisticated than its predecessors, it is sharper and more direct. His crunching guitar riffs sound strangely familiar, her basic rhythms give the music just enough lift and velocity, and they both sing simple but effective tunes that would’ve sounded at home in the early-90s indie-pop scene. There’s no invention here to bowl you over, but the succinct hookiness is its own reward. The album’s 11 tracks clock in at just over 24 minutes.
RESPLENDENT In a Wilderness (Mixx Tape) For most of the past decade Michael Lenzi’s been musically married to Seth Cohen, moving from behind the drum kit in their indie-pop band Number One Cup to play guitar in their postpunk project the Fire Show. For this solo endeavor, his focus since Cohen moved to England last year, he’s pushed guitars and drums to the margins and created an unkempt mishmash of rudimentary drum programs, babbling vocal rants that mix nonsensical wordplay with hip-hop cliches (he’s particularly fond of “flip the script”), abstract instrumental colors (I can make out synthesizers, xylophone, percussion, and melodica, but they rarely all line up in any sort of conventional fashion), and the occasional vocal sample (the Hideout’s Tim Tuten turns up on the title track). It’s a lot like the Fire Show’s dub-fueled art rock–minus the rock.
SCOTT TUMA The River 1 2 3 4 (Truckstop) On his second solo album the former Souled American guitarist blurs the line between instrumental Americana and ambient music. Over four lengthy tracks Tuma layers fractured waves of guitar, harmonica, and harmonium, then drenches them in heavy echo. But rather than inducing tedium by looping his licks into infinity, he allows his dusky rural evocations to develop over time. The music effectively works off its title, with quivery long tones on harmonium suggesting a current rolling through a landscape of parched guitar parts.
VAKILL The Darkest Cloud (Molemen) After a decade in Chicago’s hip-hop underground, Molemen charter MC Vakill finally delivers his debut full-length. As with most Molemen production jobs it’s strong on the fundamentals: Panik and Memo work subtle variations on tight, head-nodding beats, using sample schemes that alternate melancholy strings, hijacked soul, and chopped-up film scores. Despite some unfortunate matter-of-fact misogyny, Vakill displays a bounty of no-frills skills, packing his lines with dense internal rhymes and long strands of interlinked wordplay. Most of the tracks offer reflections on life in the city, but a few try something more ambitious: “Fallen,” with a frenzied guest spot by Atmosphere’s Slug, is an Eminem-style tale of a jilted one-hit MC who goes vigilante on his record company.
WARMDESK Guero Variations (Deluxe) Some of William Selman’s earlier recordings as Warmdesk were amorphous, glitchy soundscapes, but this is more of a dance album, albeit a muted one. Selman was inspired to make the music on Guero Variations by Guero, a piece the German avant-gardist Helmut Lachenmann composed using only sounds made from inside a piano–plucks, scrapes, and knocks. The bulk of the source sounds here were similarly generated, but they’ve been treated electronically so that you can hardly tell what instrument produced them. Selman’s minimalist techno stutters contrast nicely with his warm underwatery tones; the programmed rhythms are in perpetual motion and the liquid melodies likewise cycle through plenty of subtle permutations. This isn’t far removed from the ambient grooves of Scape artists like Pole and Jan Jelinek.