Made in Chicago

The health and diversity of the Chicago scene have been stable for some time, but one thing that’s noteworthy is the solidification of a new wave of record labels with varied rosters and first-class production values. Of these eight recent releases by local artists, only two were put out by the artists themselves, and none by established imprints like Drag City, Thrill Jockey, or Touch and Go. The quality of the work varies, but the self-sufficiency these records represent is what made this city’s musical community what it is today.

THE BELLS The Ultimate Seaside Companion (HitIt!). Local Scotsman Chris Connelly trades the stiff industrial-disco clatter of his days with Ministry and the Revolting Cocks for the cathartic balladry of tragic legends like Nick Drake and Tim Buckley–though he sounds like no one so much as Hunky Dory-era David Bowie. While there’s a laid-back beauty to the album as a whole, after 50 minutes it’s numbingly apparent that as a songwriter Connelly lacks the range of any of those forebears.

DIANOGAH As Seen From Above (Ohiogold). Dianogah often gets lumped in with experimentalists like Tortoise and New York’s Ui, but despite similar unusual instrumentation (two basses and drums), on its good-looking debut LP (recorded by Steve Albini) the local trio’s surefooted maneuvers through intricate arrangements lead it down the path taken by guitar bands like the Minutemen, Slovenly, Slint, and Silkworm. Dianogah’s revisitations aren’t half bad–but neither are they half as good as the originals.

KEVIN DRUMM Kevin Drumm (Perdition Plastics). Tabletop guitarist Drumm has been lurking on the periphery of Chicago’s bustling improv scene for several years now, occasionally working with folks like Ken Vandermark and Jim O’Rourke as well as out-of-towners like Evan Parker and John Butcher, but his solo debut suggests that he comes from even farther out. Drumm has developed a guitar analogue to the computer-generated minimalism of Finland’s Mika Vainio (of Panasonic) or Cologne’s Pita and General Magic, exploiting intentional and accidental elements in disturbingly disjointed, highly abstract, chillingly beautiful soundscapes–and erasing the already tenuous line between “real” and “artificial” music.

ANNA FERMIN’S TRIGGER GOSPEL Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel (Sighlow). Her debut with her new band is far from flawless, but Fermin’s clearly become one to watch. As a songwriter, she’s got a ways to go: the six tunes on the EP (one’s a hidden bonus track) are passable country rock and not much more. But Fermin’s voice is a real wonder, with as much power as range. She can deliver a husky approximation of Dolly Parton in one breath and shift into deep-soul belting in the next. Though the gospel-flavored opener, “Blame Me,” is flattened by slick vocal harmonies and stock melodic conceits, the rest of the material gets a boost from sparse, gritty arrangements and the tasty lead guitar of the Riptones’ Andon Davis.

FONDLY F Is for…Fondly (Scratch-ie/Mercury). If these guys had released their second album six years ago…well, they would have been Pavement. But it’s almost 1998, and their raggedy hooks, unorthodox structures, and weird extraneous sounds–not to mention Brian Burkhard’s lackadaisical vocals–are thoroughly, boringly safe.

PANCHO KRYZTAL Pancho Kryztal (Scratchie/Mercury). On his debut album, Jamaican emigre Kryztal attempts to combine dancehall toasting with American slow jams, obviously chasing the mainstream success of Shaggy. When Kryztal’s wearing his MC hat, his deep, resonant voice connects despite the tepid beats, but when he shifts into smooth-crooning mode, there’s nothing to save the album from dissolving into blandness.

MIGHTY BLUE KINGS Come One, Come All (R-Jay). What Sha Na Na was to 50s rock ‘n’ roll the Mighty Blue Kings are to 40s jump blues–‘cept that the Kings’ front man Ross Bon hasn’t the charisma (or the biceps) of Bowser. Why anyone would choose to listen to soulless covers of Percy Mayfield, Louis Jordan, or Jimmy Liggins–or the wan imitations the group calls originals–when the real thing is readily available is beyond me. But the Kings were recently signed by a division of Sony, so at the very least perhaps they can give fellow hacks the Royal Crown Revue a run for their money.

RIPTONES Extra Sauce (Bloodshot). Mainstays of Chicago’s small rockabilly scene, the Riptones take on country with a swampy fervor that suggests they’re less obsessed with authenticity than most of their ducktailed peers. But though vocalist Jeb Bonansinga can slither effortlessly through a good rocker, his balladry is prosaic at best, and most of the lyrics on the album range from sophomoric (“Crawfish Pie,” one of many paeans to food) to just plain stupid (a rant about biker-poseurs called “Motorcycle Man”).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.