To truly get the best out of Chicago’s vibrant music scene, you need to venture out to the smaller neighborhood venues where genuine bands make their way to play their hearts out. I think it would be safe to say that this is true of finding good live music in any major metropolitan area. Tucked in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago you’ll find a low-key spot called Township. Part bar and dining area, known for having a pretty fantastic brunch offering, part venue space, this was where dream pop outfit Craft Spells made their long-awaited tour stop last week. Armed with plenty of new material off their new release, Nausea, some old favorites, and the support of local bands Zoo Brother and Exit Ghost, Craft Spells put on a night of music sure to please long-time and new fans alike.
Kicking off the night was Chicago self-described DIY “garage pop” group, Zoo Brother. The band was not shy about how excited they were to be playing on the same bill as one of their idols. On the band’s Facebook page, Craft Spells is first on the list of influences and during their set, frontman William Karmis noted “I’ve been bumping [Nausea] in my car all week.” It was easy to see the dream pop influence in their sound and how Zoo Brother fit into the mix. Their strength was mainly in their solid, catchy beats that were easy to move along to. Karmis’ vocals had an earnest strain to them that helped portray the longing in the words he was singing. Each member was clearly in sync with one another as they played and overall, Zoo Brother did an excellent job of getting the crowd into the right mindset for what they were about to experience.
Immediately following was another local act, Exit Ghost. The large, six-piece indie pop group made their way onto the small stage and with so many members, to say that their sound was full would be an understatement. The energy was already rising in the room and Exit Ghost successfully heightened it that much more. They had notable stage presence, not only during their songs but between songs as well, making jokes with the audience. A standout factor during their set were the lovely vocals, both lead and background, which were almost too easy to get lost into.
Finally, it was time for the set that one could argue fans had been waiting all night for, others could argue fans had been waiting two years for since Craft Spells last played Chicago, accompanying The Drums at Subterranean. Whichever way you look at it, the anticipation in the room was undeniable. Each member made their way to their spot on stage to the sound of excited cheers. They dove right in with the title track off of Nausea. Their was mellow swaying and head-bobbing during the song which you would think would be consistent throughout the entire set, given the relaxed, peaceful nature of Craft Spells tunes. Well, you may be surprised to hear that the excited energy turned what started out as dancing into moshing later on in the night, especially during fan favorite ‘Party Talk’. The strangest part being that this was actually the second dream pop artist attached to the Captured Tracks label whose live show featured heavy moshing (note Beach Fossils at Subterranean, May 2013).
Everyone was of course eager to hear some brand new material, fresh from the studio but of course, the crowd went nuts over Idle Labor gems like ‘From the Morning Heat’, ‘The Fog Rose High’, and the previously mentioned ‘Party Talk’. Frontman Justin Vallesteros addressed the crowd and noted how excited he was to be able to get to play the new stuff for everyone. The band’s energy quickly matched that of everyone in the room and for that one set, everyone seemed to let loose and completely let the moment take over.
You can’t judge a book by its cover and you can’t judge a live show by the genre of music. Craft Spells’ normally dreamy tone still managed to set the stage for a show bursting with energy.
Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s: Slingshot to Heaven – Since 2005, folk rock collective Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s have been supplying deep, thoughtful and probably slightly weird listeners with a seductive brand of hauntingly melancholic tracks. From 2008’s ‘A Sea Chanty of Sorts’ to the ever-popular ‘Broadripple is Burning’, which has seen multiple incarnations since its release, Margot surely seem to have a knack for bringing a dose of reality nonchalantly and artistically.
I was a teenager fresh out of high school when Margot first made a blip on my radar. I was discovering and refining my musical tastes beyond which band members were the cutest or which song would make me look cool if I played it loudly enough in the parking lot. It was The Dust of Retreat that captured my attention, and I can recall spending hours with that record on repeat. Something about Margot was soothing but also kind of unnerving, and also endlessly entertaining. The band can shift from making animal noises to singing a siren’s song about heartache and deception.
They made a stance in 2008, releasing ‘Animal!’ and ‘Not Animal!’ at the same time as a sort of four-letter response to the unwanted direction of their producers. Margot’s take on things was ultimately better and more organic. Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s have always been inventive and somewhat altruistic, creating a sound that encapsulates feeling. It’s always raw, but Margot never hesitate to prove that they can show a lighter side. Listen through the band’s discography, and I promise you’ll find yourself in a ping-pong match of different emotions.
I don’t want to say that Margot’s 2014 release Slingshot to Heaven is more of the same. That would suggest that they’re getting boring, which could really never be the case. Instead, I’ll say that Margot are giving listeners exactly what they desire out of a good MNSS record.
The album’s first track, ‘Hello, San Fransisco’, has the same somber-ish storytelling finesse with the same earnest vocals. But there’s something a bit more, something a bit fuller in this track that makes it a satisfying listen. I think it has to do with the swelling string section padding the line “let’s throw our bones away” that does it for me.
This is Margot, version 2.0. In ‘Long Legged Blonde Memphis’ is the same awesome lyricism with upbeat piano riffs and heavy drum beats. Margot have taken cues from the likes of Portugal. The Man, electrifying a usually mellow sound and infusing it with alt-rock goodness. It’s definitely a change in the world of Margot & the Nuclear So & So’s, but it’s a good one.
By the time ‘Wedding Song’ begins, the listener has gone through a multitude of sounds and tempos and lyrics and new ideas from Margot. But when the soft acoustic guitar begins to strum, we’re transported to a place of comfort. Margot pull from their roots, what they’ve always done, to orchestrate a really beautiful track. It’s a little tragic amd a lot earnest, and it brings me back to that first time I listened to Margot as a teenager. The music has always felt like an open-ended conversation. It’s familiar.
The great thing about Margot is that they grow with you. Just like growing up, you maintain some of who you used to be, keep the best parts (in this case, poetic lyrics, understated vocals and a creative sense of musicality) and add to the mix until you end up with something great. I want to purge myself of all mediocre music forever and instead curl up with Margot, where everything is interesting and right, and I can always count on the music to keep me interested…9.0/10
White Reaper: White Reaper — The classic punk number is a single scrap of an idea captured in about 2 minutes (3 more recently, advances in technology, y’know); the lengthier the track is, the more it runs the risk of proselytizing, of *gasp* believing in something, and hence shattering the illusion that the present moment is the pinnacle of fun and fanfare. The songs on White Reaper‘s phenomenal self-titled debut certainly fit this bill, and then some–they sound completely full, completely developed, and not just because they’re loud and fast like drunken wolverines on bicycles either. There’s a completely development of ideas, a flurry of melodies and elements that all pack enough punch to make you believe you went through a journey of twice the real-time length.
There’s a compliment I rarely deliver – “I don’t even know, man, these songs sound kinda . . . long . . .”, but imagine I’m saying it with my mouth slightly ajar and with one eyelid tensed and suspicious of what I’m hearing, rather than with a blase tiredness. White Reaper is a never-ending burlesque of street fires and chest-drumming mojo, with moments of gravitas that prevent dismissals of shallowness. The riffage is constantly profuse, the bass bouncy and insistent, and drummer Sam Wilkerson, Odin Almighty– he sounds like he could breast-stroke a liferaft to safety, with the towing rope gritted in his teeth. He hits with an intensity you wouldn’t expect from the hummingbird-schizo pace he operates at; there’s gotta be lead weights tipping those drumsticks or some such nonsense.
It’s a little bit nuts to try to pick a standout, every track seems like a how-to for succeeding in punk, six ways to success–opener ‘Cool’ is your catchy, nonsensical, Ramones-sing-along; closer ‘Ohh (Yeah)’ (love the parenthetical there) goes at a pace at once danceable, yet resembling the lurch of an electrified corpse, thanks to a thrumming bass courtesy of Sam’s identical twin Nick, and to the raw enunciation of vocalist/guitarist Anthony Esposito; and ‘Conspirator’, though it mostly pounds with a No Age sort of urgency, has these dad-rock moments of designed crowd-pleasing that avoids hamminess.
The tracks just seem to vibrate in their own little envelope long after they end, and the album as a whole begs to be repeated–it just hurtles on and on, like six tops spinning endlessly in a box. Not bad at all for a trio of under-agers…8.8/10
Blackbird Blackbird: Tangerine Sky — Tangerine Sky, Blackbird Blackbird’s new album offers an alluring mix of R&B/hip hop influences, classic and electronic music, somehow ignoring the exploding trends of today while still showing off an original sound that fits right in. The first song on the entrancing collection is ‘Tangerine Sky’. Metaphorically I see it as that really popular guy in high school who wasn’t that good looking and never played football, but somehow was still the prom king. The beat is thought-provoking, but it can’t touch the honest words that are sung the lyrics, “I need you the most/I love you the most of all/Everything collapses, crumbling into nothing/but we still need to hold on to our memories” and are spread patiently throughout the title track ‘Tangerine Sky’.
‘Feel It In My Bones’ is my personal favorite song from the composition. It’s slow dreamy entrance brings you in and leads you to the smooth yet catchy chorus. The song lifts you up and then brings you back down again and again with seamless transition. This is thanks to Mikey Maramag, the man behind Blackbird Blackbird. He is a powerful wizard who controls all of the blackbirds…. Well, no he’s not, but it is the solo artist’s moniker. His style may be attributed to his pretty great and wide range of influences, from old favorites like Caribou to great raising talents such as James Blake.
The next track ‘Darlin’ Dear’ is definitely in homage to John Hughes movies. It would have fit right into Sixteen Candles. It’s soothing post-punk 80s melody will take you back. Following it is ‘There Is Nowhere’ which returns the R&B vibes forgotten in the previous track. The vocals are funky and high pitched as ever but the slow beat bursts with soul and emotion. The end is surprising and well timed. The sudden change brings another layer showing off Maramag’s talent.
‘Summers Almost Here’ begins with the noises of summer but smoothly flows into an upbeat rhythm until all of sudden somethings hits it and hundreds of noises collide into a rush of tones and melodies that blend unexpectedly together. A break comes, but it is short lived and those strange noises are thrown back at you expanding every second. The ending leaves more to be desired but the rest of the song stands up for itself. ‘Rare candy’ is another stand out track. The guitar brings a welcomed familiarity. Maramag shows off his lower vocal range and it adds a heavy but comforting touch to the breezy song.
‘Grow Old With Me (Don’t Let Go)’ is the final song on Tangerine Sky. It begins with a simple but happy beat before Maramag’s vocals enter the scene. His drawn out syllables are dreamy and soft. They change the feeling of the song but the beat does not get depressing. It works as the final song, ranging from quiet to electric but ending in the form of a drift away. Don’t forget to check out ‘Star Faces’ as well, it is a B-side for the album where Maramag turns it down a notch once again, but the track stays soothing and mysterious. It’s a great choice for listening to while studying to get you in the zone.
Tangerine Sky is the soundtrack to your dreams that won’t make you fall asleep. It has some pretty cool artwork too. Be sure to check it out…8.0/10
Andrew Bird: Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… — Andrew Bird’s new album is hard to write about, like trying to describe a dream. Coming after his 2012 album Hands of Glory, where he previously covered folk-tunes from longtime collaborators and muses The Handsome Family, his new album Things Are Really Great Here, Sort Of… goes even further with Bird paying homage to the Alt-country duo with an entire album’s worth of covers. With his signature violin and wistful whistle, Bird imbibes their Gothic Americana-rock with his endearing lightness.
It’s an album rife with contrasts. Like the favorite ‘Tin Foiled’ where Bird sings, in a chorus you’ll hear for days, “what is moving will be still/what is gathered will disperse/what is built up will collapse.” Hardly recognizable from the baritone bleeding original, Bird’s high pitched hum and charming violin, alongside backing band Hands of Glory, help bring these songs into the eclectic, classical territory expected out of the somewhat unpredictable Bird.
With Tift Merritt on guitar lending a cushioned base for Bird’s jumping vocals to fall on, those of a female balance his boyish pitch on songs like ‘Don’t Be Scared’ where the thrashing percussion is delicately woven through by soft guitar strums, streams of instrumentals, and the poeticism of the lyrics themselves. While the narratives of the original tracks are slightly obscured by the distracting depth of Brett Sparks’ baritone, Bird exalts them. In ‘Frogs Singing,’ pretty little plucks circle Bird’s fluctuating wail while on ‘Drunk By Noon’ delightful lyrics like “there once was a poodle who thought he was a cowboy,” are accompanied by the flutter of his shaking vocals while a perfect whistle breezes over the breath of sound The Hands of Glory create.
Songs about drunkenness and cheap whiskey bubble throughout the album like the refurbished True Detective theme song ‘Far From Any Road (Be My Hand)’ where Bird’s tantalizing use of instrumentals and choir ready crone float upwards and then fall down with the beautiful melancholy of the track. ‘So Much Wine, Merry Christmas’ makes one feel like they’re driving down a dark country road after wiping whiskey tears off a worn down bar until Bird sings “listen to me Butterfly, there’s only so much wine” and the sweetness of that country cordiality tints this dark brown lullaby with a glimmer of gold.
This album goes down like red wine, sweet and dreamy, a bedtime story for adults. Bird’s dense streaks of instrumentals and warm accents fill The Handsome Family tunes with new blood and birth a blushing future for the genre-bending artist, hopefully one that expands on the country character he’s dreamt up for us here…9.0/10