By Tom Lynch
Bands from within these city limits all give appreciation to their roots, but none have done so quite like the Bound Stems in their methods and experimentation.
Strewn throughout “Appreciation Night” (Flameshovel) and all of its fifteen songs, the band’s debut full-length after last year’s impressive E.P. “The Logic of Building the Body Plan,” are various random recordings of Chicago life, from train-station audio to on-stage band introductions to conversations from parties and the sounds of jangly transportation. To call it a love letter is too easy, but that’s primarily what it is—that and one of the finest local releases this year.
“We used samples of turnstiles and stuff—[we would] carry around microphones and record cab drivers, bikes on the North Avenue bridge,” says Janie Porche, singer and multi-instrumentalist. “We tried to use the stuff that connects our feet to the pavement. This is how we get around, from friends’ houses to our own house.”
Porche grew up near Austin, Texas and moved here in 2003 to go to graduate school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, studying art and technology, and she joined the other four—Dan Fluery, Bobby Gallivan, Dan Radzicki, Evan Sult—when they were searching for a female vocalist. She says the chemistry between the band members is due to their varying pasts. “Part of the song structures are byproducts of each of us having different jobs and backgrounds,” she says.
The song structures, indeed, are immediately striking—the band breaks all verse-chorus-verse conventions straightaway, hauling in multiple progressions and pieces to each song, sometimes dramatically changing melody and tempo at such a random pace that it confuses the listener. Not to say it’s not smooth—the transitions, wildly inventive, always surprise in a positive way. On one track, my favorite, “Excellent News, Colonel,” it begins with a soft, speaking sample, flows into a sweeping bassline and drum intro, then into the first vocal part—a near-perfect melody by Porche as she dishes on a lost love in New York. Then it turns ninety degrees as Gallivan takes over the vocals, changes the key altogether, and never looks back. That is until the ball is handed back to Porche for yet another change, this time for a more upbeat outro, in which they both sing the song into oblivion. And that’s the traditional Bound Stems song.
“I don’t think there was a final idea of what we were going for,” Porche says. “We wanted complicated time signatures, really varied sounds. We wanted to make those more approachable than they’ve been in the past, more approachable than math rock. A lot of people find that so complicated, hard to stick in your head. But we wanted to push ourselves as musicians. These songs are about our families—it’s what we think is beautiful music that you can lie down in your house and enjoy.”
Porche admits the length of the “Appreciation Night” may seem daunting to some. “It’s a much more complicated record, a long album,” she says. “It’s something you don’t have to take in all at once. I think the lyrics are the most important. [The album] is very complex, saying a lot of great things about our lives and how we’re moving through the city. I’m almost 25—this is a time in our lives that is really interesting that people will relate to.”
Porche says that the band was advised to ease back on the record and write and record shorter songs with accessible hooks and keep the record considerably slimmer than what ended up its final form. “There are times when we’re supposed to sit down and listen to the whole thing, and it’s an endeavor, but a rewarding listen,” she says. “Different people told us different things, like ‘Hey, you should make radio hits, or a ten-song record.’ But this is a story of us moving through the city, it didn’t seem right to cut any of it short. I’ve never complained about an album that’s too long. It’s a lot to take in, but it’s available for exploration.”
Bound Stems play September 8 at Double Door, 1572 North Milwaukee, (773)489-3160, at 7pm. $5.