by Emily Strong
Ah, Chicago—the city that has been on the cutting edge of music since the Roaring '20s. To be honest, I really have bitten off more than I can chew by taking on such a massive scene. In an attempt to pare it down to something quasi-manageable, I have limited inclusion to bands who only fit the very strictest definition of "independent music", omitting those who are signed to majors or have had any mainstream success. This is not done out of snobbery or elitism, but merely a need to put some kind of limits on the pool I'm drawing from-- and even then, I will be overlooking a vast majority of bands in the Chicago area. Still, I think it's better to overlook the obvious ones like Smashing Pumpkins, Local H, and Liz Phair than emerging artists who may not have received national coverage before. So, without further ado, I give to you a few bands from the Windy City who will blow you away...
Andrew Bird andrewbird.net
Catfish Haven catfishhaven.com
The Changes the-changes.com
The Fold thefoldmusic.com
The Forecast theforecast.com
The Hush Sound thehushsound.com
Make Believe myspace.com/makebelieve
The Ponys theponys.com
Russian Circles russiancircles.net
The Sea and Cake theseaandcake.com
Smoking Popes smokingpopes.net
Aside from the fact that these guys are touring with Student Film, one of the most playful and quirky Oklahoman acts since The Flaming Lips, Berry's audacious energy is apparent despite their unassuming name. With song titles like ""Praise the Lord"" and ""Courtney Luv"", you'd better believe that Berry is sticking their tongue out at you when it isn't planted firmly in their cheek. They aren't here to impress your mom or facilitate a make-out session between you and your flame-of-the-moment; they are here to confuse, amuse, and ultimately entertain you.
There's a fine line between experimental music and performance art, and Brenmar, a.k.a. William Salas, unconcernedly saunters down that line like a seasoned acrobat. I recently had the opportunity to see him perform at SXSW, where that balancing act was never more prominent. Sitting in the midst of a whole spread of instruments, effects pedals and found objects with homemade pickups attached, Salas bounced from one object to another, creating new layers of sound as he went along. What it might have lacked in melody it made up for in novelty, as the spatial movement required for Salas to pull off his songs almost seemed more theatrical than musical. And, really, that's what Brenmar is: the viscera of music, pulled apart and dissected, rearranged and displayed as an exhibit, something to be pondered and observed and even enjoyed, but not necessarily to participate in or sing along with.
Casiotone for the Painfully Alone cftpa.org
Without getting too hyperbolic or hagiographic here, I have to confess that CFTPA brings out in me teenage IM chatspeak of the OMGWTFBBQ variety. At its inception, the project pretty much was what it says it is: one (painfully alone?) man named Owen Ashworth with a Casio SK-1 keyboard, pouring out his loneliness into simple, lo-fi tunes. Of course, time has passed and the project has evolved to include other instruments and better production, but Ashworth's songwriting has only improved with the changes. Every single song on his latest LP, Etiquette, is so loaded with irresistible hooks and unforgettable lyrics that you won't feel the least bit alone, painfully or otherwise, when listening to it.
Chin Up Chin Up chinupchinup.com
Another band whose name perfectly suits the music, Chin Up Chin Up is all about optimism. They play uplifting, galloping rock and their performances feel more sincerely celebratory than The Polyphonic Spree. And fortunately for the world, their general warmth and goodwill extends beyond their music; they also do what they can to help out friends and various charitable organizations from time to time. See their website to find out more about the charities and fund-raisers they are currently working with.
David Vandervelde davidvandervelde.com
Simply. Undeniably. Awesome. This man is going to be huge.
The Eternals myspace.com/eternalsthe
Oh man, the Eternals! When so many bands are doing dub so wrong, the Eternals do it oh-so-right. With samples piled on samples of instruments and sounds from all over the world, Heavy International is indeed heavy on international influences. From a hot salsa club in Havana to a bazaar in the heart of Morocco, the Eternals are a danceable passport to just about anywhere.
Lying in States lyinginstates.com
In an age when dispassion is cool and emotion isn't, Lying in States give the finger to the status quo and pour all their passion and energy into their music. Whether it be pleading for reconciliation or criticizing indifference, they are in your face and giving it one hundred percent, and they want you to know it. By the time they are through, even the most skeptical, cross-armed spectator will be moved to action. Whether it be dancing, fucking or fighting is irrelevant; inaction is no longer an option.
There's this crazy-fantastic band out of L.A. called The Mae Shi that you need to check out if you haven't heard before. They write songs about vampires and dolphins and the Old Testament, and are this bizarre cross between art punk and hip-hop, but mostly just kick-your-balls-through-your-brains screaming rock awesomeness. Before I heard MEAH! I thought that nobody could ever rock as hard as The Mae Shi. Now I realize that I was wrong.
Mittens On Strings – mittensonstrings.net
"We weave a tapestry of sound, essentially." This is how Mittens On Strings describe themselves on their MySpace page, but it's a bit more than that. With a cello, keys and horns in addition to all the standard fare instruments of rock, they do indeed "weave a tapestry of sound." What they fail to mention is their hilarious and heartwarming lyrics, which cover everything from the heartache of a small dinosaur who gets picked on by the big guys to the woes of a runner who ran so fast that no one saw him cross the finish line.
The M's the-ms.com
Meet The M's. They are masterful makers of mouth-watering morsels of melody. All alliteration aside, however, they really do have an uncanny command of hooky songwriting, recalling at times the best of The Beatles (check out their cover of Good Morning Good Morning on MySpace) and at others The Who at their height. With bouncy rhythms, memorable melodies and sing-along lyrics, it's impossible not to love the straightforward simplicity of a band that goes only by the letter M.
The Narrator thenarrator.net
Like CFTPA, this is another band that I can't talk about without getting all giggly and girly and very unjournalisty. And why should I? If a band makes music that's so good as to render you inarticulate, the freak-out should speak for itself. Replete with cathartic yowls, seriously danceable rhythms, ferocious guitars and the occasional glimmer of the guys' sense of humor, The Narrator defy explanation or expectation and just straight up own your soul.
With their recent signing to New Line Records they will probably soon belong in the "Setting the Scene" section, but for now they are still an up-and-coming phenomenon-in-the-making. It's no small feat to make such intelligent, complex and layered music into accessible, danceable pop, but somehow Office makes it look easy. Add to that their stunning looks and electrifying performances, and you have all the makings of a buzz band worthy of all the hype they are destined to receive.
The Poison Arrows thepoisonarrows.com
Crunchy, fuzzy, shotgun blasts of cool aiming straight for your head. Will blow your mind.
TRS-80 – trs80.com
And now, for something completely different, I present to you TRS-80, a three-piece IDM group who has managed to not get so caught up in nerdy mathematical programming as to lose musicality. "No, surely not!" You might protest. "Is such a thing possible?" And I answer: check it out for yourself. It's sexy. It's cool. It's smart. And it just as easily belongs in a chic club downtown as it does in a computer geek's garage studio. Now that's not something you hear everyday.
Walter Meego waltermeego.com
Walter Meego is not a man, but rather two hilariously self-confident men who make outrageous claims of awesomeness on their website and also happen to make the most addictive, energizing electro-pop this side of 1989. So even if you don't believe that they ate Genghis Khan and Jamaica as they claim, you will surely believe after one listen that they are, in fact, more intoxicating than a tsunami of malt liquor.
I don't usually talk about bands who have moved away from the featured city (otherwise I would've devoted at least a good 200 words to Her Space Holiday in the Austin edition!), but I owe a public apology to two wonderful artists who were omitted from the Austin edition of Hometown Heroes because I did not realize at the time that they had moved to Austin from Chicago. So, now that we're here, I would like to pay homage to these former Chi-town denizens:
Che Arthur chearthur.com
Former frontman of Chicago staple Atombombpocketknife, Arthur is now leveling cities with his ferocious snarl and incendiary brand of post-punk all on his own.
Bill Callahan, a.k.a. Smog, has been making music and influencing other songwriters for almost two decades now, and he just keeps getting better. His latest, A River Ain't Too Much To Love, is nothing short of a masterpiece.
And while we're talking about expatriates, I might as well mention...
The Webb Brothers webbbrothers.com
My favorite family band of all time moved to L.A. (traitors!) and have been slacking off ever since. But before that, they put out some gorgeous tunes with even gorgeouser harmonies and played a few crazy, hyperactive, fun-filled shows in the interim. Come back to us, Webb Brothers! We miss you!
There are countless other local bands in Chicago who are worth mentioning, and I regret not having the time, space or attention span to feature them all. However, the following resources will help you to go forth and discover more of what Chicago has to offer. I encourage you to do so.
Chocolate Industries chocolateindustries.com
Drag City dragcity.com
File 13 file-13.com
Minty Fresh mintyfresh.com
Thrill Jockey thrilljockey.com
Touch and Go tgrec.com
Abbey Pub abbeypub.com
Double Door doubledoor.com
Empty Bottle emptybottle.com
Reckless Records reckless.com
Although Reckless is the most popular independent record store in Chicago, there are actually many others, which, along with other resources for music-lovers in Chicago, can be found at centerstagechicago.com.