Cafe Racer makes noise that stirs a desire to go surfing in Lake Michigan—in the winter—maybe naked. A local outfit, Cafe Racer specializes in recalcitrant and melancholic surf rock that often feels dreamy and meandering, but composed with purpose and pragmatism. Having just released their EP “Words in Error” in November as a literal swan song, December 8-9 at Empty Bottle will be Cafe Racer’s last shows together, which we are not stoked about but definitely makes them not-to-miss for fans of the local indie scene. This is liable to be an intensely celebratory and emotional occasion.
Blending pointed and tight instrumentation with psychedelic arrangement, many tracks tend to start slow, often with feedback, before building into intriguing space-orchestra to which the listener is invited through Michael Santana’s and Adam Schubert’s (both on vocals and guitar) singing.
Santana, Schubert and Andrew Harper (guitarist) have a knack for developing mesmerizing progressions that can both seduce you and break your headphones and/or brain in the same track. Rob McWilliams (bassist) and Elise Poirier (drummer) manage the rhythm section with finesse and dexterity, cradling the occasionally chaotic arrangements with steady hands that shift through the gears as though they were driving a classic, sand-beaten station wagon in Venice Beach.
Cafe Racer, with three EPs out—“Shadow Talk” (2020), “Famous Dust” (2018), and last month’s “Words in Error” (2023)— comes from a younger, niche scene on the North Side infatuated with shoegaze garage rock. In a genre that has been a bit quiet in this city as of late, Cafe Racer represents a unique and intensely exciting new voice, making their dissolution all the more challenging to accept.
“Shadow Talk” in particular is an achievement. As an album, it strings a coherent story from start to finish, a story told as much—if not more—by the soundscape as by the lyrics. The sound has real texture; it’s smokey, fragmented, gelatinous, sandy, and many other things all at once.
Santana and Schubert’s lyricism isn’t without merit either. In their most popular, and probably best track “Second Coming,” we are invited into a transformative journey begat by a re-emergent experience, inspiring self-discovery after a period of stagnation. A story of a second coming, if you will, sung in sublimely simple terms with all of maybe one-hundred words.
While Cafe Racer makes for quality ambient listening, this feels like music that will almost certainly hit differently live. They have that rare quality where their music consistently finds a way to hypnotize and startle you in the same breath. The reverberating guitar riffs and infectious melodies effectively pay homage to a pivotal (if dated) genre, but Santana, Schubert, and the others effectively spin the genre with their own punky Midwestern flavor. Basically, you can kind of tell that this brand of surf rock was born in a garage in Chicago, thousands of miles away from any “real” beaches, in the best possible way. That’s what makes it such an addicting and beguiling listen.
Cafe Racer plays at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, December 8-9.