With the title of their new release, Chicago’s much loved, genre-devouring party band serves notice that they’re once again ready to engage head-on with the world, after the long spell of sheltering-in-place that saw so many musicians turn inward out of necessity. And the Claudettes have been as good as their word, energetically gigging everywhere to support the new record.
It comes as a surprise, then, that the album begins with a dreamy ballad that openly longs for sheltering-in-place. In “A Lovely View,” the group’s lead singer Berit Ulseth sings about the pull between outside and in: “I walked into your store / I watched you folding clothes until / I couldn’t take it any more / Can’t’cha come and fold your clothes in my room?”
It’s languidly paced, Ulseth’s voice is tinged with a gorgeous ache and pianist (and composer) Johnny Iguana provides the sparest, most crystalline playing we’ve ever heard from him. In short, this hybrid lounge-pop art song is just about the unlikeliest opener for an album I’ve heard all year. Which makes the fact that it still manages to draw you in like a tractor beam all the more remarkable.
In fact, this is a much more sophisticated album than many of us were expecting. There’s still a lot of straight-up fun to be had, but the melodies are more complex, and go to unexpected places; and the lyrics deal deftly and ingeniously with concepts like desire, loss and illusion. “Park Bench” contains this beautifully evocative passage:
Every European city that I get to go to makes a case
To be the setting of the final scene
Of a film I think is definitely French
It ends on a park bench
There’s particularly scalding political commentary, aimed squarely at the present moment, in “The American Sky.” To Iguana’s boldly staggered chords, Ulseth purrs, “He loves the sound of his voice in spring / And he, of course, adores his metaphors / In the cool, cool, cool of the evening.”
There are a few additional tracks that employ the band’s signature scalding wit—like “Exposure,” in which guitarist Zach Verdoorn and drummer Michael Caskey channel Devo at their zenith, and which savagely tears into every musician’s most rooftop-sniper-triggering comment: “Nobody knows ya, you need some exposure / (People die from exposure!) / Yeah, but everybody knows that.”
The track that most recalls classic Claudettes is “Cowboy,” which is a joyous little ode to inebriation. “I could see giving up music,” Ulseth sings, “But drinking? But drinking?… I’d be fine in a world with no eighth notes / If I had fifths, and I had wine.”
As should be evident by now, the album visits a number of different genres, which is a very Claudettes thing to do. But it all comes together as a coherent set, largely due to the consistent, and consistently topflight, performances. Ulseth in particular keeps her singing cool and minimalist, so that she’s able to achieve dramatic effects with the most subtle of inflections. Check out the hint of exhaustion when she sings, “With all the musculature, and all the curls / There’s too much affection in this world / I would like to love you, but who has the time?”
There’s also a tremor of giddiness in the final track, “The Show Must Go On (And the Show Must End),” when she sings, “I can’t believe I got to do this with you.” Is she singing to her band mates, or to us? Or more pointedly, did Iguana write that line to his bandmates, or to us? Of all the alternatives, I’m guessing the correct answer is: yes.
“The Claudettes Go Out!” is available for streaming and download at the Claudettes’ Bandcamp page.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.