By Tom Lynch
January in Chicago has the kind of near-biblical power to wreak Armageddon on your body and heart. For me, it’s always been more of an idea than a tangible, bone-freezing collection of days—a ruthless, stagnant period of time that permeates for eternity, seamless and wild. Don’t let last weekend fool you. January’s torturously cold and it’s out to get us.
Minimalist pop duo Christy & Emily sound like that pain, the vulnerable, desperate and helpless feeling that stretches endlessly until the skies turn from gray to blue. “Gueen’s Head” (The Social Registry), the band’s debut, was released last fall, an eight-song, misleadingly simple aggregation of stripped-down rock songs, too assertive to be slowcore. Hook-heavy yet delicately assembled, Christy Edwards’ clean electric guitar is knitted with Emily Manzo’s piano and keyboard work—Edwards got her rock ‘n’ roll training in New York band Lil’ Fighters and Manzo trained at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music—for a sound that, predictably, combines indie sensibility with classical-like piano-jogging. The two sounds don’t combat one another, but rather hold hands, twinkle, resonate together.
The Brooklyn duo conjures a surprisingly powerful noise—“Noah,” the record’s centerpiece, is a lovely, ambient display of reverbed guitar and sprawling piano, topped with a lazy, but angelic, doubling of vocals. It sounds like a snowfall. The sparkling tropicalia of the suitably titled “Island Song” warms the album’s blood, even the slightly cheesy bongo-percussion making a charming impression. And closer “Birds,” perhaps the band’s strongest moment, boasts a naturalness that befits the duo—the guitar and piano truly strive here, especially during the instrumental parts, however bare they may seem.
“I don’t think we have ever purposefully tried to emanate a particular sound or style,” Edwards says of the band. “We definitely are conscious of our influences, and draw upon them freely, but I think it’s safe to say that our songs come directly from our lives in a real, sincere way.”
Richards and Manzo met after the latter became the keyboard player for Lil’ Fighters, and when that band came apart, the two kept collaborating. “We have always gotten along from our first meeting and have a lot of respect for each other’s musical experiences and talents,” Richards says of why the two continued making music. “I know for myself personally that I didn’t really care whether the music was interesting or even good really. I was just into playing and having fun and the whole process of it. Of course you want the music to be ‘good,’ but you can’t worry about that really, at least not in the beginning.”
The two musicians create songs on their own. “We generally come up with ideas individually, then bring them to the other person,” Edwards says. “Sometimes a song is more developed and we can give pointers on what it should sound like, but sometimes songs take a while to settle, and they can change structure and sound over time.”
Minimalist pop music is tricky, of course, as a strong lot of people are averse to it, consider it unstimulating, especially in a live setting. Admittedly, it can be pretty goddamn boring, evidenced so dreadfully by the heaping pile of singer-songwriters who ache on stages every night. Christy & Emily, who I have not seen live, create a balmy atmosphere with a small amount of elements, and I have no reason to believe that sound won’t be emulated in person. Success is found when these acts can create a booming sound, either literally or emotionally, even when it’s a trick. Low has succeeded for years doing just that, and only on recent tours has diverted into full-on rock mode, even using guitar distortion. I hear that with this band, the ability to twirl a deep, heavy-hearted storm, even if it’s brief and bittersweet and somewhat lacking in long-term effect.
“I think it’s hard,” Edwards says of performing this material live. “It’s not always technically challenging, but when it’s just the two of us it’s very hard to hide mistakes. There’s no one else to zone out behind. So when we have a band behind us it can make things easier. Also, I know for myself that these songs are generally quite precise, even if a part of a song is improvisational and loose, it still has to be thoughtful.”
Christy & Emily play with Roommate and Till By Turning January 12 at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, at 10pm. $8.