Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Preview: Earth/Empty Bottle

Ambient, Drone, Experimental, Metal, Minimalism, Noise No Comments »


When Black Sabbath abandoned the name Earth, it was left for Dylan Carlson’s crew to assume two decades later. Earth’s mythology and music from the early nineties have proven to be equally formidable forces. Their seminal “Earth 2” is regarded as the first drone metal album, though their stint on Sub Pop is considered the beneficial byproduct of a close friendship with Kurt Cobain. Carlson and Cobain were former roommates, confidants and co-dependent drug users; their camaraderie culminating in Cobain’s suicide via a shotgun purchased in Carlson’s name. Two more albums were issued on Sub Pop, the epic distortion excursions of their genre-defining masterpiece tapered to shorter outbursts edging toward standard song length, replete with a Hendrix cover. And then, radio silence. In recent interviews, Carlson has credited this lost time to a continued struggle with drug addiction and depression, but by the mid-aughts, Earth had begun playing out again, revitalized by the inclusion of Carlson’s wife Adrienne Davies on drums, and supported by the successes of bands like Sunn O))) who owe much to the genre’s forebears. Read the rest of this entry »

Celestial Celebration: Ken Camden on Kranky’s Twentieth

Ambient, Chicago Artists, Experimental, Festivals, Indie Rock, Krautrock, Minimalism, New Music, Post-Rock, Rock, Space Pop No Comments »
Ken Camden

Ken Camden

By Kenneth Preski

Kranky is the most high-profile, under the radar record label that calls Chicago home. For the past twenty years, founder Joel Leoschke has fostered a stable of uncompromising, unpretentious artists whose work may have gone unreleased were it not for his uncanny knack for curation. The thread drawing together outfits as disparate as Deerhunter and Stars of the Lid has united musicians worldwide under one umbrella: part ambient, part electronic, part black earth rock ‘n’ roll. And “Black Earth” might be the best description available for the abstract sound Leoschke is after. As the title of local quartet Implodes’ full-length debut suggests, there’s an engrossing mysticism at work in much of the Kranky repertoire. The solo recordings of Implodes’ guitarist Ken Camden echoes this boundless energy, but even he is quick to acknowledge the fleeting nature of his alchemy, and his hesitancy to share it.

“I’ve always been making recordings at home and stuff, but I’m kinda bashful and wasn’t about to slip [Leoschke] a tape or anything.”

Cajoling artists of this ilk is an elusive art form, something Leoschke has perfected. Somehow he’s managed to cater to the cagey, artists wise enough to avoid making a deal when they needn’t, musicians hungry for harmony on a cosmic scale rather than the fleeting fame offered by superficial scenesters. Art of this kind often has a unique origin story. Read the rest of this entry »

Shining Path: Guitarist Steve Gunn Chases Creeping Songcraft

Blues, Folk, Minimalism, Psychedelic 1 Comment »

Steve Gunn (credit Constance Mensh) By Dave Cantor

“My first solo guitar performance was in my backyard when I lived in Philadelphia,” Steve Gunn says over the phone from his Brooklyn residence.

The journey from performing in a band to amassing enough confidence to get out in front of a crowd and express musical ideas can be an excruciatingly difficult maneuver. Inspiration helps, and for Gunn, it showed up in the form of departed guitarist Jack Rose.

“I only played a very short set,” Gunn says of that backyard gathering. “Jack played and a few other friends. That was my first attempt at doing it. Then I didn’t do it for years after that.”

A revival of interest in players like Leo Kottke and John Fahey bloomed during the middling-aughts, while Rose’s renown grew beyond Pelt, the band he’d founded while still in Philly. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Private View+2″ by Swing Out Sister

Jazz, Minimalism, Pop, R&B, Record Reviews, Soul No Comments »


The British duo formed by keyboardist Andy Connell and Corinne Drewery had a string of hits during the late eighties and early nineties, including memorable tunes like “Am I The Same Girl” and “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool.” Twenty-five years later, they continue to tour and record regularly.

On “Private View+2,” they revisit their early hits and some mostly unknown songs. By listening to the album, you can see how they have evolved—they have embraced more jazz-influenced sounds that are probably owed to their past collaboration with musicians like Luis Jardim (percussion).

The album has more of an acoustic direction—“Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” for instance, is devoid of any electronic instruments. Connell inserts a snippet of the Doris Day classic “Once I Had a Secret Love” and Drewery sounds very comfortable in this more relaxed atmosphere. The cover of The Delfonics’ “La-La Means I Love You” is arranged around the acoustic bass, and has more of a light-jazz feel. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Freelance Whales/Lincoln Hall

Folk, Folk-rock, Indie Pop, Minimalism, New Music No Comments »


Who says busking on the New York City subway (or any mass transit platform where you can be heard) has no future? It was there that Queens-based Freelance Whales honed their skills playing folksy electronic music with unusual instruments (glockenspiel, banjos, xylophone) until they became indie-music darlings after the release of their debut “Weathervanes” back in 2009.

The band’s name comes from the band members’ perception that everyone in New York is a freelancer in one way or another (not sure if the folks down on Wall Street would agree with that). Their releases have been well received both by critics and fans, and some of their tunes have appeared in TV shows like “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Chuck” and “Skins.” Their music seems a bit minimalist—drums are played with brushes, and their arrangements are both creative and subtle, which allows vocalist (and main songwriter) Judah Dadone to comfortably convey his message without having to scream over the sound. Read the rest of this entry »

Transcontinental Dub: Sun Araw’s Cameron Stallones Occupies the Crossroad of Disparate Sounds

Experimental, Minimalism, Noise, Psychedelic No Comments »

Sun Araw/Photo: Fabian Villa

By Dave Cantor

Electronic experiments in the States  and Jamaica’s vocal tradition may be one of the few remaining untapped combinations in the music world. Luckily, Cameron Stallones, who performs and records as Sun Araw, was already privy to the work of a North Carolinian who wouldn’t distinguish between acoustic folk traditions and 1950s minimal compositions. Unwittingly influenced by Henry Flynt’s recombination, Stallones generates at the crossroad of disparate sounds.

“Some of that stuff is the most relentlessly psychedelic music—like the violin strobe stuff,” Stallones says of Henry Flynt’s fiddle improvisations, which are set atop looped drones for 1981’s “You Are My Everlovin’.” Read the rest of this entry »

Escape from Noise: Is This Not Music?

Chicago Artists, Experimental, Industrial, Minimalism 2 Comments »

The Haters, headed by GX Jupitter-Larsen at the 2010 noise fest Neon Marshmallow

By Arvo Zylo

The sound man looks nervous and angry as he shakes his head. He’s red-faced and gazing down at a tangled pile of guitar cables drenched in a puddle on the floor.  A man in a furry lizard costume is in the back of the room, freaking out with his guitar; another man is up front in a white Eskimo coat that’s smeared brown with blood. He’s peeking out from under his hood, messing around in a suitcase full of electronics. A woman runs around with the skin of a pig’s head over her face, smacking people across the kisser with meat. Blood flies everywhere. Another guy in a bloody white shirt is kneeling, bouncing a cymbal off of the floor over and over. He looks like he’s in his own little world. A man in a makeshift leather executioner’s outfit is swinging a bullwhip at me. It smells like a slaughterhouse. This is Cock E.S.P., and this is one extraordinary example of a noise performance. Read the rest of this entry »

Record Review: “Live from The Old Town School”

Alt-Country, Bluegrass, Blues, Chicago Artists, Country, Country folk, Folk, Folk-rock, Jazz, Minimalism, R&B, Record Reviews, Rock, Soul, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »


The Old Town School of Folk Music has been the stage for countless performances for its half-century existence, hosting concerts that run the gamut from Americana to folk-rock and world music and in the meantime giving lesser-known artists a chance to showcase their talents to appreciative audiences that might not be reached otherwise.

To celebrate this, the school is releasing a four-disc box set of recordings made during these shows—some made on the sound board and others captured during radio broadcasts. The full package includes as many as 127 songs that had to be individually cleared with each artist or their estates. Read the rest of this entry »

A Question of Power: eighth blackbird explores the capability of music

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Minimalism, New Music No Comments »

Photo: Luke Ratray

By Dennis Polkow

When Igor Stravinsky wrote his 1936 “An Autobiography,” he made what has become an infamous statement that, “I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc.”

Coming from the composer of some of the most radically expressive music of the twentieth century, the paradoxical passage took many by surprise, to say the least.

Others viewed it merely as a contemporary reiteration of the nineteenth-century French aesthetic of L’art pour l’art, rendered in Latin as Ars gratia artis, or “Art for art’s sake.”

The idea that art neither had—nor needed—any ulterior purpose whatsoever other than to be art had become so commonplace in popular culture that it even became the motto of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, shown encircling a roaring lion before every MGM movie.

Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe in his 1976 “Morning Yet on Creation Day” offered one of the most biting criticisms of what he considered an arrogant, abstract and Eurocentric view of culture, declaring that “art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorised dog @#!*%” (sic)

“That debate fascinated us,” says Lisa Kaplan, pianist for the Grammy Award-winning contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird, “and became the catalyst to curate pieces specifically intended to convey passion versus ‘absolute’ or abstract music for its own sake.” Read the rest of this entry »

Broken Glass: How the high priest of Minimalism avoids repeating himself

Classical, Minimalism, New Music No Comments »

Philip Glass

By Dennis Polkow

“It’s a problem,” composer Philip Glass told me in 1989. “The first problem any composer has is finding a voice, and the second problem is getting rid of it. You often hear from people, ‘Oh Glass, he always sounds the same.’ It doesn’t really, but you have to make a big effort for it not to sound the same. It’s very hard to do that because it’s like trying to look at yourself in the mirror and ponder, ‘Okay, what do I really look like? What is my style of dressing?’ You can’t possibly be objective about it, and yet you can’t just trust what the papers say or what your friends tell you.”

A decade into the twenty-first century, it is now clear that Glass is the most prolific, successful and emulated American composer of the last quarter of the twentieth century, if not beyond. Although he has always disliked the term, Glass is considered one of the founding fathers of Minimalism, a style of music characterized by static—though slightly shifting—repetitious traditional rhythmic and harmonic patterns. Glass is so recognized as the high priest of the movement in the public imagination that he inspired a character on the “South Park” animated television series called Glass, who likes to write pieces based on a single note. Read the rest of this entry »