Photo: Nick Helderman
By Dave Cantor
Camped out at the Shadow Shoppe, a recording studio doubling as a residence in an industrial area near Amsterdam, Jacco Gardner’s been burrowing into an insular universe.
It’s a place the multi-instrumentalist has been exploring for almost a third of his life. And it’s been fully realized, in musical terms, as “Cabinet of Curiosities,” which Chicago’s Trouble in Mind issued Stateside earlier this year.
With the album’s release, Gardner’s granted listeners access to a collection of vivid “fairytales,” as he calls them, each recorded on his own at the Shoppe, save for the disc’s more complicated drumming. The work’s been cobbled together over the last eight years, drawing from the more baroque moments of sixties pop music. There aren’t any distinct hints of contemporary Europe in Gardner’s songs, and an unknowing listener could easily mistake just about anything “Cabinet” offers as a selection from the first psychedelic era. It’s more than mere retread, though—it’s a twenty-four-year old’s imagination splayed out over twelve tracks. But “Cabinet” would warrant notoriety even if Gardner hadn’t played guitar, bass, keys and a variety of synthesizers.
Despite his ostensible squatting, his homeland Holland has embraced “Cabinet,” sending Gardner on a series of TV appearances and performances at venues that would overwhelm U.S. musicians of comparable popularity over here. Read the rest of this entry »
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Chicago’s Singing in the Abbey effectively balances smart, moody chamber pop with trained classical-music instincts. On “Wake Up, Sardis!”—the quartet’s debut full-length officially released in early 2010—leader Annie Higgins drives the band’s gothic sound forward with her haunting, often mesmerizing, vocals and graceful piano playing. (The exquisite string accompaniments help the cause as well.) For tonight’s show at PianoForte’s Studio 825, the band plans a mix of both original compositions and classical selections, including, according to Higgins, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” Live, Singing in the Abbey makes complex musical pieces seem almost breezy—it’s a soundtrack to a fairy tale, but one that lives in the shadows. “We’re excited to play in a Chicago building that has so much character, after a very long winter,” Higgins says. Recently, the band posted four new demos to music site Bandcamp.com, which are available for download. (They’re currently working on a follow-up full-length to “Sardis.”) This should be a good show to take in as winter eases its grip. (Tom Lynch)
March 18 at PianoForte’s Studio 825, 410 South Michigan, 7:30pm. $5.
Clare Manchon and her group, The Reasons, play an upbeat chamber pop that works its way to curling up the corners of your mouth, coaxing you into a blissful smile. Raised on classic black American music, the likes of Sam Cooke and Bessie Smith, Manchon’s old influences seep into the new, creating a mesmerizing mixture of sounds.
Manchon’s father, Geoff Muldaur, is known for his work with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. She says the folk and blues musician was a “great teacher growing up.”
Now, Manchon is creating her own music and famously writes her songs in her kitchen, inspired by the city surrounding her. New York City. Read the rest of this entry »
Clinic’s new record, demandingly titled “Do It!” (Domino), scares me shitless. This isn’t an acid trip, this is an acid parade. Balancing songs that range from orchestral pop to acoustic blues-folk to lounge-act space jams, Clinic’s record will keep you guessing, confused, flighty. It’ll make you forget your obligations and responsibilities. You won’t remember who’s your friend and who’s your enemy. The band staggers and stumbles through a rhythmic haze with an explosive confidence that reaches the peaks of daring whimsy. Like a crowded dancehall in a dream, the album’s overpowering and, yet, inviting. Join the parade. C’mon. Do it. (Tom Lynch)
Monday, May 12 at Empty Bottle
The insanely environment-friendly Cloud Cult (its label is called Earthology Records, a not-for-profit that serves as a consultant for Universal and ASCAP; all the band’s products are organic or post-consumer recycled) has been inconsistent in the past, crafting records that embrace IDM’s electro-glitch with pop melodies and Arcade Fire-like catharsis, but with 2007’s “The Meaning of 8” the band, led by Craig Minowa, really came through on its previous promises. (That album’s opener, “Chain Reaction,” still gets stuck in my head on a weekly basis.) The new record, “Feel Good Ghosts (Tea-Partying Through Tornadoes”), quite similar to its immediate predecessor, boasts the electronics everyone’s come to know from the group, plus all the musical accoutrements, the acoustic guitars, synthesizers, string arrangements and Minowa’s voice, which still sounds to me like John Roddick’s from The Long Winters. One could complain that Cloud Cult aren’t venturing out of its comfort zone with “Feel Good Ghosts,” and it would be an accurate assessment, but this band has a way of presenting absolutely gorgeous, brief twinklings of music within its songs that seem new every time. The Forms open the late show, and the Brooklyn band’s recent self-titled record masterfully recalls underground nineties rock, but also looks forward to a greater future. The band sort of knocks you on your ass with its earnestness, as do the adventurous time signatures. (Tom Lynch)
Friday, April 25 at Schubas
Sweden’s answer to New York’s Stephin Merritt, Lekman has three full-length collections under his belt, most recently releasing “Night Falls Over Kortedala” in September. The melancholy yet witty nature of his work is endlessly captivating, if a bit clichéd and annoying at times (in a good way, of course!). But even at his most roll-your-eyes romantic, Lekman is a powerful musician, incorporating so many different sounds and instruments into his oeuvre that no song sounds the same. His previous assortment, “Oh, You’re So Silent Jens,” still stands as his most convincing argument, most notably for his chamber-pop, near-theatrical one-two punch of songs “Pocketful of Money” and “Black Cab.” He’s got stories to tell, and he’ll tell them with a bit of a wince. Adorable, cute and infuriating like a puppy that shit on the rug. Probably better than he realizes. Maybe a big con, and the joke’s on us. A soundtrack for scrabble. Far better than anything Rivers Cuomo has done since “Pinkerton.” (Tom Lynch)
Friday, November 2 at Logan Square Auditorium
By Tom Lynch
The walls of Ukrainian Village’s Darkroom are plastered with semi-erotic art pieces but tonight’s crowd doesn’t seem to notice. Some are there to avoid watching another inevitable Cubs playoff loss, others because it’s free, but all because they have at least a slight interest in the headliner, Chicago’s The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, the chamber-pop band that’s been making waves since as early as 2004.
On stage is a free-for-all. It’s later in the set—more importantly, later in the evening, rounding 1am—some of the crowd has dispersed, and leader Elia Einhorn and his gang of musicians are letting go.
“We’re gonna play ‘Ellen’s Telling Me What I Want to Hear,’ even though that’s not what she’s doing right now,” Einhorn says, referencing the song from the band’s first record, which is in itself a reference to cellist Ellen O’Hayer.
They do. The band then launches into “I Never Thought I Could Feel This Way for a Boy,” a giggly frenzy of a song, an early single that’s included on the band’s upcoming self-titled record. The band isn’t drunk, and the band isn’t simply being careless because the crowd’s scattered. They’re having fun—a stage rarity in the melancholy-drenched sphere of pop music. And while the band exudes confidence—made that much more impressive by the large quantity of musicians on stage—it also leaves you on edge, as if each song could fall apart at any moment.
You really can’t ask for anything more.
Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago band May or May Not’s deliriously catchy chamber pop comes to fruition with the “Bike” EP, an improvement on the intriguing “Colors Only Bees Can See,” the band’s full-length from last year. The six-piece uses a variety of instruments—including horns, synths and piano—plus rock-solid harmonies and backup vocals and crams enough into four songs to make you think you’ve heard an entire record. “Drown in the Sun” features hook after hook—every part can get stuck in your head, and trust me, there’s a lot of parts. Upbeat and full of indie-pop affection, May or May Not’s approach isn’t exactly unique or groundbreaking, but with an energetic live show (they’ve held their own opening for the explosive Bang! Bang!), the group keeps it entertaining by truly using all six of its members. “Holiday,” the EP’s final song, comes close to pop perfection—it’s reminiscent of an old Rentals song, ripe with innocence and delight. Read the rest of this entry »
Canadian Owen Pallet is another strong arm in the Toronto music scene that has wooed and won the heart of American indie rock. As a contributor to The Arcade Fire, Pallet participated in the “Funeral” tour as both a violinist and an opening act. His solo project, “Final Fantasy,” opened the tour at times covering Mariah Carry, Joanna Newsome and even an Arcade Fire hit that the headliner would later play. Pallet’s new album, “He Poos Clouds,” is a cinematic experience, with strings and piano progressions; at times it is reminiscent of a chuckling “Peanut Christmas,” while other periods of melodramatic discord pull focus with trumpets and drums and big bellied cries. Pallet’s vocals adopt D&D ideology to examine belief systems and with tongue-in-cheek, he builds contemporary parallels, for instance how plastic surgery is transubstantiation. The violins are sickeningly sweet, expertly played, and contrasted by the clean vibrato of Pallet’s voice. Read the rest of this entry »
Whenever a record with cartoon animals on the cover starts with a song called “Be Gentle With Me,” you usually know what you’re in store for. Chamber pop to the extreme, The Boy Least Likely To’s “The Best Party Ever” simultaneously enthralls and nauseates with its candy-coated, feel-pretty-good mood. It’s a record that Belle & Sebastian could’ve made eight or nine years ago, which could basically be viewed as the best thing in the world or the worst thing imaginable. The ambition is nice—plenty of xylophones, strange double-vocals and keyboards, plus the line “I’m happy because I’m stupid.” Like Beulah, but without the bad attitude, The Boy Least Likely To reaches gorgeous pop perfection a few times, like on the chorus of “Paper Cuts,” friendly and shameless with its cheesy keyboard leads. Not recommended for those who think joy and exultation are overrated. Read the rest of this entry »