Friday, September 30, 2005

Extra! Extra!

The October issue of Chicago Innerview is now available on-line.

I contributed write-ups on Earlimart and the Foo Fighters. Both articles can be found on the same page:

Play Or Nay

Franz Ferdinand - You Could Have It So Much Better (Sony)

The Scottish quartet really make a statement on their follow-up to their highly acclaimed self-titled debut. As one of the most talked about debuts of 2004, Franz Ferdinand show no signs of a sophomore slump on You Could Have It So Much Better. The title alone is quite the declaration for a band that's just released their second album. It's probably the closest indication that their success has gone to their heads, but they back up the talk track after track.

They dress the way they play together as a band, with style. The album's first single, "Do You Want To," is alluring as it is exciting. Singer Alex Kapranos provocatively channels glam-era Bowie while drummer Paul Thomson lays down a beat that would have dance clubs, anywhere, bumping and grinding. Nick McCarthy lets off a call-to-arms salvo of precision guitar licks on the album's opener "Fallen." McCarthy's style continues to grow as some manic interpretation of The Ventures. Lyrically, the song is the most politically direct song the band has written, taking aim at the ever popular trigger happy, problem solving methods to global issues ("What's wrong with a little destruction?"). The band maintains a tight grip on their frantic side; the pull and shake effect they shape with their twisting arrangements still rattle the brain. Nothing is ever completely linear when it comes to Franz Ferdinand. But just when you think that can't pull it off here comes "Eleanor Put Your Boots On."

Mostly an acoustic number, diverting from the high charged nature of the album, Franz Ferdinand seem to take a seat, pack up the drums, and dress the song up with some gentle piano parts. Kapranos' relaxed vocals give way to McCarthy's shaded guitar notes which cast a bit of shadow to the song. It's a world where Nick Drake meets The Kinks for under three minutes--indeed an album highlight.

You Could Have It So Much Better definitely mixes up the moments to make a more attractive listen and keep the band from falling into familiar moves. They've taken that step from a good singles-minded band to a band that makes a start to finish solid album. Songs like "What You Meant" and "Evil And A Heathen" are polished to be bigger but never lose edge. The band provides a little breeze with another acoustic driven song, "Fade Together," and the mid-tempo jangle of "Walk Away." In 2004, they made it cool to dance to rock songs, again. Today, they simply make it look smooth defying expectations.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Farm Aid @ Tweeter Center (9/18/2005)

It was twenty years ago when a band of artists came together to make a difference for farmers. The idealism that Willie Nelson, Neil Young, and John Mellencamp brought to the table to create Farm Aid has managed to maintain a voice in a sea of politics. But on the twentieth anniversary of the benefit concert there loomed some disparaging news that would give Farm Aid a rough return.

In the Saturday edition of the Chicago Tribune, staff reporter Jason George examined Farm Aid's financial books and pushed the case that the organization was not distributing the money to farming families as it was set up to do; that the expense of putting on the concert was part of the problem. This report did not sit well with the folks at Farm Aid. Three days after the concert Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot reported on the morning press conference launching Farm Aid back into action. In his article, Kot described Neil Young's venomous punch back at the Chicago Tribune article by quoting Young as saying, "The people at the Chicago Tribune should be held responsible for this piece of crap." Young then proceeded to rip a copy of the newspaper in half. This was definitely not the way organizers of Farm Aid wanted to start off their day at the Tweeter Center.

By two o'clock, roughly 33,000 of the sold-out crowd filled every corner of the venue. The afternoon went by swiftly as early acts of the day were given about 15 to 20 minutes to perform. Canadian singer/songwriter Kathleen Edwards was a stand out during her set as she promoted her latest album Back To Me. Edwards gave it her all in that brief period of time, her enthusiasm was vibrant on stage. Buddy Guy, a cornerstone of Chicago blues, was teamed up with John Mayer, who worked on Guy's upcoming album Bring 'Em In. Mayer kept within his role as Guy's second guitarist, shying away from the spotlight, and showcasing more of his blues roots. It was a sign of respect by Mayer to not let his image and popularity with the younger portion of the audience get in the way of Guy. Emmylou Harris was as gentle as the warm summer breeze that came through. As she did on her 1995 album Wrecking Ball, Harris provided a pleasant cover of Bob Dylan's "Every Grain Of Sand."

In their first local appearance since a four night stand at the Vic Theatre in May, Wilco gave a spirited performance that began with an extra kick by a rosing introduction from Illinois Senator Barack Obama. It was yet another special moment in a career that has risen to new heights in the past three years, commercially and artistically. Before the band concluded their set, singer Jeff Tweedy, who in recent times has grown more vocal at shows when speaking his mind, took sharp aim at the Chicago Tribune and the article it published on Farm Aid. Said Tweedy, "Chicago Tribune, you should be ashamed of yourself. I don't care if you write one nice word about us ever again. You fucked up." The roaring response from the crowd was a good enough sign that they were on the same page with Tweedy. Wilco soared off into the night with a pumping version of "The Late Greats."

Farm Aid cultivated a strong bill for their anniversary show, but some of their choices that seemed like sure bets on stage didn't exceed expectations. Jam band heroes like Widespread Panic and upstarts like Los Lonely Boys gave pristine performances that were bland on every level. Arlo Guthrie, son of folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, twiddled his time away with "Alice's Restaurant." The song was the endurance test of the day as it slowed the pace of the show down. Kenny Chesney and John Mellencamp are cut from the same cloth except one wears a cowboy hat. Chesney's appearance after Wilco brought the majority of the crowd to their feet for the first time all day. The country superstar didn't miss a beat, hitting every country cliche in the book and delivering the all-American feel good two step of the night.

But it was the big four of Farm Aid that took the show into it's final turn towards the finish line. Dave Matthews took to the stage with just his acoustic guitar and gave a solo performance. "When I was a little kid I wanted to be a farmer," joked Matthews to fight his nerves, "I don't know what went wrong." Regardless of his nervousness, obviously feeling naked without his band behind him, Matthews remained strong and encouraged by the crowd's positive response to every note he played. John Mellencamp put on his showman cape and gave the crowd a tasty selection of his classics. As one of the original organizers of Farm Aid, he took time out to reminisce about the creation of the benefit. The thought to attempt such a feat was described by Mellencamp as "naive."

Neil Young packed his anger towards the Chicago Tribune and must have put it into his set because he stole the show with an awe-inspiring performance. Opening with Fats Domino's "Walking To New Orleans" as a tribute to Hurricane Katrina victims, Young immediately set a tone to his set, a life affirming tone. Young also featured songs from Prairie Wind, a new album musically linked to Harvest (1972) and Harvest Moon (1992). The band supporting him--Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, and Chad Cromwell--all had something to do with all three albums. Young set the stage on fire with a stunning and overpowering rendition of "Southern Man." With his seasoned black Les Paul, fondly called "Old Black," Young unleashed a fury of fuzz and distortion, each solo just more blistering than the last. "This Old Guitar," a new song, was very fitting as Young played a rather old guitar. "It's a song about a guitar," he said before playing. He then pointed to his acoustic guitar strapped across his shoulder. "It belonged to Hank Williams," said Young. The definitive heart of his set didn't come at the end but as the third song performed. Accompanied by a small gospel choir, Young sat behind the piano for another new song called "When God Made Me." His soft voice equalled by the piano notes transcended beyond just original music. If "Southern Man" was a snarl, then "When God Made Me" was a soul searching, introspective sigh. It was quite possibly the best sound all day to fill the air around Tinley Park.

By the time Willie Nelson arrived on stage for his headlining spot, much of the audience on the lawn cleared out to avoid the massive lines of traffic exiting the Tweeter Center. Having opened their gates at noon, Farm Aid rolled on without a bump in their schedule. It was a success on every aspect from the music to the money raised for the organization. The controversy stirred by the Chicago Tribune article didn't deter public support of the cause nor did it damage the image of Farm Aid.

Play Or Nay

Brazilian Girls - Brazilian Girls (Verve Forecast)

Talk about musical foreplay--mix a sultry female singer who can tickle the ears in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, on top of some spicy dance club beats, and the end result is something that teases just enough without showing a lot of skin.

Brazilian Girls make their debut after forming just two years ago in the New York City music scene. What they bring to the table are four geographical perspectives (Rome, Buenos Aires, California, Kansas City) with a common musical bond. It's not your ordinary dance music. The roots of electronica and pop are there in the music but with a twist. At the front of Brazilian Girls is Sabina Sciubba, a front-woman already gaining the reputation as unadulterated sensuality with a microphone. Sciubba captures the mood to each song as though she were the one leading the dance. Setting the pace of this dance are Jesse Murphy (bass), Aaron Johnston (drummer), and Didi Gutman (keyboards). One moment, the band is creating a jazzy, dreamlike environment befitting of a classic 1960s James Bond film--the French sung "Homme"--while during another they are the soundtrack to a hot night among sweating bodies at some New York club ("Dance Till The Morning Sun"). "Lazy Lover" seems to act as a homage to the worlds of Burt Bacharach and Henry Mancini.

It's all just a tease. There is a definite worldly flavor that Sciubba brings by singing in other languages other than English, and the band compliments her approach nicely with just the right attitude. But Brazilian Girls seem to hold back just a bit on their self-titled debut. There's no question that this album is filled with style and sophistication. However, the album plays up the smoothness too much. Sexiness in music is easy to fall for when it nibbles just at that right spot, and this album is covered all over in it. That's not a crime. "Pussy" is a not too shy, tongue-in-cheek, playful pop tune. As if walking all alone through Times Square at 4 A.M., hypnotized by the lights, "Ships In The Night" strolls softly into the shadows.

Brazilian Girls turn up the steam but quietly simmer back down. On their debut album, Brazilian Girls do just enough to keep you wanting more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Paul Weller @ Vic Theatre (9/20/2005)

"I'm a changingman built on shifting sands," sang a fired up Paul Weller during a hammering take of "The Changingman" before a sold-out audience at the Vic Theatre. The ageless Modfather of The Jam and The Style Council returned for his first Chicago performance in two years to promote his upcoming seventh solo album As Is Now. Weller and his band mixed up a terrific selection of his ever changing moods from his days with The Jam to the present.

When it comes to a Paul Weller album fans may not know what they're going to get. Weller, like Neil Young, has successfully made a career by constantly reaching for the next step without fear of slipping. Rare as it been for an artist from a noteworthy band to excel their creative output they produced while in that band. Take for instance Pete Townshend of The Who: his solo career had a shining moment of commercial success with Empty Glass (1980), but he has never maintained a steady pace of solo work; opting to wear out The Who catalog on countless tours and make promises of a new Who album (minus deceased members John Entwistle and Keith Moon). To Weller's credit, he has never cashed in on his days with The Jam or ever hinted at reuniting the band, which he broke up in 1982 at the height of their popularity. Weller avoided that which he never wanted to become: an aging musician holding onto the glory days of the past.

The words "Fire & Skill" were taped onto Weller's amplifier, and they sum up a lot about where he finds himself today. Adulthood has become part of his craft, applying his years of experience into his music, but what hasn't been lost is Weller's intense drive to press forward. Weller's solo career has been squarely focused on living in the present day rather than attempting to recapture his past. Only in recent years has Weller began to explore his past work with The Jam in concerts. But another word that should have appeared along "Fire & Skill" is "Style." On a night where U2, Beck, and Franz Ferdinand were all performing at various venues in Chicago, Paul Weller proved that he has a fashion sense that all three artists would envy and a body of work that demands respect even if not the buzz artist on American charts.

As Is Now was not released in the U.S. yet (due October 11), but Weller gave his fans a nice sampling, performing seven songs from the album. "Blink And You'll Miss It" kicked the night off with a little funk and soul, led by Weller's distinguishable vocals. Giving Weller the bulk of his sound were bassist Damon Minchella, guitarist Steve Cradock, and drummer Steve White--White has been Weller's drummer since The Style Council at the age of 16. All throughout the evening, Weller either sang with grace or choked every note possible out of his electric guitar in the heat of a rocker. Song after song, Weller's reputation as an artist who doesn't disappoint on stage remained intact. The show built itself more on Weller's past releases while carefully adding the new material to maintain a flow. Songs like "From The Floor Boards Up," "Paper Smile," and "Come On/Let's Go" were some of the most rambunctious, straightforward rock tunes Weller has written in years since Stanley Road (1995) and Heavy Soul (1997). "Here's The Good News" recalled Randy Newman of the 70s; "Roll Along Summer" and "All On A Misty Morning" were smooth with romance and sophistication.

The energy between Weller and the audience grew in volume as the band dipped into Weller's past. The Vic Theatre rumbled as the first couple notes of The Jam's classic "In The Crowd" echoed in the air. It was almost as if Weller wrote the song yesterday. Weller led the song into an all out jam sensation as he and Cradock traded some hot guitar solos leading up to the adrenaline high of White's drum solo. Weller provided more Jam treats with fresh renditions of the cryptic "Tales From The Riverbank" and the social consciousness of "That's Entertainment."

From the psychedelic twists of "Foot On The Mountain" to a Style Council favorite "Shout To The Top!", Weller masterfully brought the audience to a peak, leaving them wanting more. In the final encore, Weller pushed the heights of the night. The raw and whimsical "Hung Up" was followed up by a gorgeous tribute to New Orleans in "Broken Stones." Finally, Weller and the band gave the most sharply tuned version of "Town Called Malice" to end the night on a definite high note; the audience vigorously booed the house lights coming on. It was a two year wait for Weller's return to Chicago. Hopefully, it will not be another two years for an absolute musical gem like Weller, in the creative prime of his life, to come back and shower a crowd with his Mod magic.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Hideout Block Party - Day Two (9/17/2005)

Tim and Katie Tuten could not have asked for a better conclusion to the 9th annual Hideout Block Party. After a cloudy Friday, nature was kind to the co-owners of the Hideout and provided fantastic weather for a Saturday stacked with music. This year's lineup included many notable Chicago acts like The M's, Eleventh Dream Day, The Ponys, and The Redwalls. But the buzzing news of the day was the first live performance in twenty-two years by The dB's in their original lineup.

To many loyal patrons, the Hideout Block Party has come to mark the end of summer. It's that last hoorah outside before the winter coats come out of their closets and the salt trucks hit the pavement. As in previous years, the proceeds from this year's two day fest went to benefit the not-for-profit organizations P.L.A.Y. and Tuesday's Child & Literacy Works. Last year the Hideout raised $14, 238.58 for the two causes.

Tim Tuten worked the stage like some vaudeville announcer jumping up onto his rock and roll soapbox and preaching to the audience about the next band they were about to witness. The passion he would put into his speeches would leave some in the audience a bit out of breath. Behind the scenes he and his wife would be tending to the needs of the bands and making sure the train was running on time. Try to imagine a family Christmas gathering where all your second and third cousins showed up and you only have one table where they can be seated for dinner.

As the afternoon rolled along so did the music. Guitarist Rick Rizzo of Eleventh Dream Day slashed the calm air with his fuzzed toned guitar and murderous vocals. Since reforming nearly two years ago at the Double Door, Eleventh Dream Day has gone about their "comeback" quietly. "We just recorded these two weeks ago," said Rizzo regarding the batch of new material the band unveiled on stage. The songs were so fresh that even the band joked about not knowing what songs to play. Although the band was missing guitarist Baird Figi, who participated with the band's reunion show, the raw nature of Eleventh Dream Day's set still created a chill down the spine, not because it was nostaglic to hear one of the most venerated Chicago rock bands rekindle some old fire but because the music remains timeless even if you had never known about the band or its past.

Not only was Chicago well-represented on the bill but so was Canada. The Sam Roberts Band was the full-tilt rock show of the day, provided by our neighbors to the north, with polished guitar solos, thick beards, and big choruses to ignite the sing-alongs. Following Eleventh Dream Day's set and preceding The dB's, the Sam Roberts Band injected some kick into the afternoon even if it wasn't a real dose of anything at all. It's all well and good to play to a crowd as if you're playing a sold-out Wembley Stadium, but, without the songs to back up the swagger, it's then only a show with pretty instruments and tight jeans.

Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple, Will Rigby, and Gene Holder are four names that when put together make The dB's complete. They are legends out of the Winston-Salem music scene of the early 80s and considered to be the torchbearers of the jangle-pop sound that was often attributed to The Byrds and Big Star. What The dB's started in their heyday R.E.M. continued as they rose in popularity into the late 80s and early 90s (early producers Mitch Easter and Don Dixon, later on Scott Litt, had ties to The dB's). It had been a long time coming for the band since breaking up in the fall of 1988; Stamey had left the band in 1982. For all the lineup changes The dB's faced after Stamey's departure and slow record sales, there were still fans waiting with open arms for their band to come back again.

The band's performance at the Hideout was the first of two shows they had scheduled that day--the other was a late show at the House of Blues. The cheers were loud and clear as the foursome walked onto the stage. Eager fans piled in front of the stage already shouting out requests for "Neverland." To simply pick up a guitar and play on stage must have been a pleasure for Holsapple who recently lost his home in New Orleans to Hurricane Katrina.

As they opened their set with "Ask For Jill," the Holsapple-Stamey vocal duo was harmony never lost. The band was a bit shaky early in their performance, but they would find each other within the songs. Rigby and Holder held the base of the band together, while Holsapple was the match that lit the fire; it was no wonder why R.E.M. used Holsapple's well of talent during their 1989 Green World Tour and subsequent MTV Unplugged in 1991.

The dB's dusted off their catalog and managed to throw in some new songs as well like "World To Cry" and "Santa Monica." In a touching moment, the audience let the band know they were game for one more song, and, with some encouragement fromTim Tuten, the band returned for more. Already against the clock with set times and changing gear on stage, it was a gesture of respect to allow The dB's an encore, and why not? It was a show that was twenty-two years in the making.

The sun began to set and the music got louder as some of the best local acts played into the night. It was a smoking trio of The Ponys, The M's, and The Redwalls that really took the block party up a couple of notches. Toss Joy Division and Sonic Youth into a blender and you would get The Ponys. Their frantic assault was simply just that; every note screamed chaos and every beat thundered like a bomb. The M's married the strange with swaggering melody--every word that singer Josh Chicione's whispered was like a secret with a sinister punch line. Placed near the top of the bill was The Redwalls. Their star has risen since touring with Oasis on their U.K. summer stadium tour and opening the first day of Lollapalooza. Born rock stars? You bet. The time with Oasis certainly has rubbed off the quartet out of Deerfield, IL. Now, when The Redwalls take the stage, there's more of a bounce in their strut. Singer Logan Baren nearly melted his microphone with his no-mercy powered vocals. They may have used The Beatles as their platform, but don't pigeonhole The Redwalls as merely a cover band making some noise. "On My Way" was smoother than a Las Vegas pimp, and a cover of Bob Dylan's "Just Like A Woman" came across with biting energy. The Redwalls closed out their night with a balls out rendition of "Robinson Crusoe," highlighted by guitarist Andrew Langer and his Pete Townshend-guitar trashing moment.

At the end of the night, the Hideout Block Party accomplished what it set out to do: provide great music. If you ever wanted to know what kind of people Tim and Katie Tuten are, just attend one of the block parties or Hideout shows and you'll understand. These people are their club. For just a donation of $10, eight hours of live music was put on stage, drinks were had, and order was maintained. It's not the place to be seen. It's just the place where you go and say, "I'm here for some good music." And in its ninth year, the Hideout Block Party kept up its reputation as one of the best summer street fests in Chicago.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

North Mississippi Allstars @ House Of Blues (9/16/2005)

The North Mississippi Allstars took to the stage at the House of Blues around 11 PM, on a Friday night in Chicago, and proceeded to smoke through a performance that lasted nearly three hours. The trio from Oxford, Mississippi clearly had the heaviest hearts in the club as they dealt with the destruction brought on by Hurricane Katrina two weeks prior to their native southern soil. As they promoted their new album Electric Blue Watermelon, it was visible the band had their minds elsewhere while delivering a powerfully cathartic show.

It was the band's first Chicago show since last year. The band recently came through town last July as John Hiatt's band, headlining the WXRT Free 4th of July concert at Grant Park. Fans of the band who were at that show probably were not used to seeing the band stick to a plan. Known for their fluid stage presence and "jam" band-like qualities (marathon guitar solos, band improvisation), the North Mississippi Allstars are considered to be in a class of their own, manipulating what they know to be the traditions of blues music and turning it upside down on its head with country, folk, and rock music.

If there was ever an obvious signal from the packed audience that they were ready for the band's flavor of boogie, it definitely came at the start of the show as a woman tossed her bra at guitarist Luther Dickinson. The shuffling groove of "Teasin' Brown" was an early jump start to the night. Drummer Cody Dickinson (Luther's younger brother) and bassist Chris Chew makeup the band's fat stomp of a rhythm section. Together, they formed a sound like a herd of oxen marching through open fields. The band gave their latest material heavy rotation throughout the setlist. Songs like "Hurry Up Sunrise" and "Deep Blue Sea" stepped back from their more sweaty counterparts and showed more of the band's softer, melodic side. In a tribute to R.L. Burnside, a blues legend in every aspect and friend to the band, "Shake 'Em On Down" got down and dirty as it blended a cover of Burnside's "Poor Black Mattie." The band wrapped their hands around another cover deep into their encore with a hot, sexy (possibly illegal in some states) version of The Rolling Stones' "Stray Cat Blues."

The night eventually drew to a close. Chew, the most talkative of the band members, joked often about how the band has been known to be asked to stop playing by the clubs hosting them. Once that switch is flipped to ON it's hard to get the North Mississippi Allstars to stop. Each member had their moments to shine: Cody Dickinson's washboard solo (yes, a washboard), Chew's funky basslines, and Luther Dickinson's flawless guitar work.

For every note, the crowd kept up with the band. It's almost as if the band dares any crowd to try and maintain a level of energy equal to the band's on stage. If you're going to be at a North Mississippi Allstars show, prepare to go all night with the band. To them, the music is like sex; each song gets the band and crowd closer to that monumental orgasm to cap off the night. The bra that was thrown onto the stage at the beginning of the show became Chew's trophy, dangling from the head of his bass as if to signify how great the night went. All parties were happily satisfied and smoked their obligatory cigarette when the lights came back on. With so many musical dynamics at their fingertips, the North Mississippi Allstars gave all the reasons why they consistently remain to be an explosive live band. The chaos which nature wielded upon thousands along the Gulf Coast caused enormous suffering for many. But for the Oxford-based band out of Mississippi the music provided just enough comfort to get through the night.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Play Or Nay

The Redwalls - De Nova (Capitol)

Reinventing the wheel in rock and roll just doesn't happen over night. Often, bands have placed their stamp on rock music by taking pages from its past and giving it a new, fresh spin. The Redwalls don't add much of a different take on 1960s rock, but they do celebrate the influences with honesty and flare (just look how they dress).

On just their second album, the quartet out of Deerfield, IL were signed to Capitol Records and have made their major label debut with De Nova. Barely into their twenties, The Redwalls perform with the hunger and arrogance of a band that knows how good they are and how good they can become. You'd almost think that if they were teamed against The Rolling Stones today that The Redwalls would give the Stones a good run for their money.

Between Logan Baren, brother Justin, and Andrew Langer, The Redwalls display a three-piece harmony team that pack a lot of the punch to the band's songs. Probably not since R.E.M.'s trio of Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Bill Berry has a band really developed their vocals in such a way that they are just as important as the guitar parts, like The Beatles or The Beach Boys. Right off the bat, songs like "Robinson Crusoe" and "On My Way" suck you in with their attitude and their swing.

A lot of that stems from vocalist and guitarist Logan Baren. The young singer greatly echoes a young John Lennon with a touch of Liam Gallagher's venomous vocal spit. The themes on De Nova are pretty basic: the crush on the girl ("Love Her"), no desire for school ("It's Alright"), and just plain feeling like you're on a roll ("On My Way"). But there are moments of consciousness that really shine through; bent up frustration towards the FCC in "Falling Down" and the Dylan-esque look at war in "Glory Of War" give the album some added substance that make it a much more solid album.

Albeit a better effort from the band's first album Universal Blues (2000), The Redwalls don't throw many surprises on De Nova but give a lot of reasons why there's plenty of promise on the horizon. It would definitely fall under the category of "Nothing You Haven't Heard Before" just as bands like The Strokes. The Redwalls get a pass for their sophomore album. If they are to shake off the heavy weight of Beatles labels they even now shurg off--something Oasis can't seem to get past after ten years--The Redwalls best think of a way to make people believe otherwise. The grading is just going to get harder from now on.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Play Or Nay

North Mississippi Allstars - Electric Blue Watermelon (ATO Records)

It has been a steady ride for the North Mississippi Allstars. Over the course of five years, the band has become its very own institution of the blues, attracting all walks of life in music like Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Lucinda Williams, and the legendary R.L. Burnside. Their fourth album, Electric Blue Watermelon, finds the band trading their marathon jam sessions for more concisely polished songs. The fat stomp remains but what's slightly lost in the mix is the dirty muck that gave the band their raw edge.

As a trio, Luther Dickinson (guitar), brother Cody (drums), and Chris Chew (bass) haven't sounded better. Producer Jim Dickinson, father of Luther and Cody, keeps the band's loose stage presence while getting a tight performance out of the them. Dickinson helped produce the band's 2001 album 51 Phantom. What sets the North Mississippi Allstars apart from other blues acts of today is their willingness to go beyond the traditional blues structure that becomes repetitive, building on itself without ever branching out. Still rooted in the blues of their native Mississippi hill country, the North Mississippi Allstars find new ways to keep the blues fresh while respecting its past. The album's title is said to come from the name of a band once led by Memphis blues musician Lee Baker in the 1960s. So, it can't be argued that the Allstars don't know their history.

Any one musician in the band can easily lead the charge in a song. But when all three are locked into gear they make one hell of a sound. "Teasin' Brown" runs just a little over three and a half minutes but you can close your eyes and imagine the band turning on a dime to make the song last twenty minutes. The lyrical hooks--something that on record the band can either be hit or miss--varies from time to time throughout the album. A key weapon that seems to never falter in the band's arsenal and make up for the sometimes soft lyrics is their ear for a musical hook--the groove. "Stompin' My Foot" plays up on some funk. "Bang Bang Lulu" could have been an up-tempo B-side to The Beatles' "Yer Blues." There's a bit of The Black Crowes that echoes during "Deep Blue Sea" while Lucinda Williams lends her dirty pipes on "Hurry Up Sunrise."

Overall, Electric Blue Watermelon is a breezy album that doesn't divert too far from the North Mississippi Allstars' style of boogie shakin' blues. Already a sharp live act, the band still shows the potential to make the studio a place where the energy they create on stage becomes something so much more than just a straightforward performance album.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Extra! Extra!

Due to a SPAM hit this evening, Getting In Tune has been revamped to remove the problem. Unfortunately, the previous web counter could not be salvaged. So, a new web counter has been installed, starting the count back to ZERO.

Since July 27, 2005, when the first web counter was installed, Getting In Tune has attracted 1,404 readers to the site.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Play Or Nay

Kanye West - Late Registration (Rock-A-Fella Records)

On Late Registration, Chicago native Kanye West brushes off any worries of a sophomore slump and continues to think outside the box of the hip-hop world. If last year's The College Dropout was West's declaration as one of the new premiere voices in music, then Late Registration emphasizes West's talents as a musical entrepreneur and solidifies himself as an undeniable presence that can not be ignored for one second.

For any artist with the opportunity, making an album is a dream come true. When world wide acclaim follows it and platinum records pile up, the thought of a follow up album has to be floating in the back of everyone's mind. That second step either proves they can find a path forward or fall backwards into failure. West could have easily delivered The College Dropout Part Two and sold millions. Instead, he recruited a producer in Jon Brion, a man with no hip-hop experience and whose credits include artists like Fiona Apple and the film score to Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The move was perceived by hip-hop big shots as artistic suicide, but, in the mind of West, playing it safe would compromise all that he has accomplished thus far. Although the ideas are bigger with bling and the line of guest vocalists longer on Late Registration, West can not seem to leave behind hip-hop's self-promotion mentality. A customer who paid $15.99 for the album shouldn't need to be reminded time and time again during a song exactly who they just gave their money to; that's not songwriting, that's advertising. But just when you think West is going through the motions for the crowd he creates a twist.

The soundtrack to 1998's Godzilla contained the over-bloated Puff Daddy opus "Come With Me," a song built on the sample of Led Zeppelin's classic 1975 song "Kashmir." Puff Daddy had already scored big the year before by using a sample of "Every Breath You Take" by The Police for a tribute to his fallen rap partner, The Notorious BIG (Biggie Smalls), called "I'll Be Missing You." Well, with "Come With Me," not even Led Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page backed by a symphony could save this led balloon of a song. Simply mentioning the movie and its soundtrack is probably the most recent "publicity" it has gotten in seven years.

Where Puff Daddy failed, Kayne West succeeds with a song like "Gone." Still not the most superior rapper in the world, West has a keen ear for the right voices that can give his vision shape (count how many vocalists appear on the album). Rappers Consequence and Cam'Ron fill in the spaces West needs filled while sampling Otis Redding's "It's Too Late." The end result is a hip-hop hybrid, incorporating a driving orchestral arrangment that would make famed conductor John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, Indiana Jones) stand and applaud. "Gone" is just one example of West allowing the music to be the song's hook. On "Touch The Sky," the horns in Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" get slowed down from their crisp flow to a head bopping strut. The late Ray Charles appears on the album's first single "Gold Digger." Using Charles' vocal from his 1955 hit song "I Got A Woman" and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx--who portrayed Charles in the movie Ray--as a guest vocalist, West creates possibly his smoothest, hotter-than-the-sun single yet.

As a producer, West knew how to take a song and make it a world in itself. "Drive Slow" takes a tour of Chicago's South Side on any given night, from Lake Shore Drive to the I-80 expressway east into Calumet City for a stroll around River Oaks Mall with the speakers pumping in the car. In "Roses," West recalls his dying grandmother to paint a picture of how 35 years of service to the church as a secretary doesn't matter in a hospital room when "the best medicine goes to people that's paid." His frustration builds as he is faced with humanity taking a back seat to the reality of health insurance, "You tellin' me if my grandma was in the NBA/Right now she'd be ok?"

There is a clear conscious at work throughout Late Registration even while hip-hop cliches creep up between songs. Like the introduction to The College Dropout, Chicago comedian Bernie Mac reprises his role as the loudmouthed teacher who sees West as a nobody. Unfortunately, West adds four nonsensical skits at certain points of Late Registration that do nothing but cheapen the atmosphere of the album. That said, West manages to remain hungry with something more to prove to hip-hop, always finding new chips on his shoulders to fuel his fire. The College Dropout is West responding to a dare to leave the shelter of the producer's chair and get in front of a microphone. Late Registration is the lion's roar--it is Kanye West taking on everyone and anyone who stand in his way towards that which all artist crave: respect.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Chris Mills & The City That Works Orchestra @ Schubas (9/3/2005)

"Chris Mills Is Living The Dream" certainly said it all as Chris Mills stood on the musician clustered stage at Schubas. Surrounded by The City That Works Orchestra, an 8-piece ensemble of local musicians, Mills celebrated the upcoming release of his fourth album The Wall To Wall Sessions. The leadoff track of that album was also the show's opener. For the singer-songwriter from Collinsville, IL, the dream has grown to span ten years and has shown no signs of slowing down.

On The Silver Line (2002), Mills stepped away from his alt-country sound and traded it in for a more pop heavy, melodic atmosphere often compared to Wilco's transition from Being There to Summerteeth. Mills has kept the sound but changed his delivery. Recorded on January 7-9, 2005, The Wall To Wall Sessions was by all means a back-to-basics move by Mills in terms of how he wanted to approach the creative process this time around. With a 17-piece orchestra and a two-track recorder, Mills took a detour from the studio magic available at his fingertips to create something raw and invigorating. The translation from studio to stage was remarkable as he and his band packed every inch of space on the small Schubas stage.

The assembled group, many of whom worked on The Wall To Wall Sessions, was a sort of Who's Who of the Chicago music scene. The rhythm section of Ryan Hembrey and Gerald Dowd are often found backing songstress Nora O'Connor. Susan Voelz has been a long standing member with Poi Dog Pondering. Fred Lonberg-Holm remains an active musician among the avant-jazz scene of Chicago while often lending his cello skills to others (most notably on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).

As Mills performed 90% of The Wall To Wall Sessions, there was a definite sense that Mills turned the right page he needed to turn to move forward in his career. He hasn't lost the heart to his music, but he has found new avenues to explore. The swinging waltz of "You Are My Favorite Song" captured the spirit of a young Chris Mills on 1995's Plays And Sings while the gentle lullaby of "Everything About The Heart" revealed how much Mills has matured over the years. Mills' soulful voice was at its best and his joy on stage was unmistakable. Mills dipped back in his catalog for songs like "Brand New Day" and "All You Ever Do" for some of the best rocking moments of the night; the size of the stage couldn't hold Mills back from leaping in the air with immense fervor. Chris Mills proved that he's still on a strong, creative stride and that his best work keeps getting better. Although Mills left Chicago a few years ago for Brooklyn, his heart sure hasn't, and the musicians that gave their skills to make the show possible on a Saturday night at Schubas showed that Chicago hasn't forgotten Chris Mills.

All Photos By: Chris Castaneda

A Conversation With...Chris Mills

In honor of Chris Mills' recent performance at Schubas, here is an interview I did with Chris from 2004 just before his September 1 date at Schubas. Included in the interview are comments from John Wesley Harding and Wilco's Glenn Kotche.

Chris Mills was twenty-one and a student at Northwestern University when he released a 7” single in 1995 titled Plays And Sings. The title truly reflects the naiveté of what he was doing. There was nothing to over-intellectualize about nor any hidden meaning behind what he was trying to accomplish. Just as the title reads, Mills was simply playing and singing; he was doing what he felt was an innate: creating.

The now 30-year-old native of Collinsville, IL has relocated from Chicago to Brooklyn, but not before making a name for himself in the Chicago music scene with songs that hinted to a level of maturity beyond his youthfulness. “I just made up all kinds of songs, like Neil Young as filtered through a fifteen-year-old kid, not very good, but I was trying,” says Mills thinking back to his beginnings. The change of surroundings is a testament to Mills’ need to grow, not only as a musician but a person as well. “I’d been in Chicago for a long time. So, I thought it was time to see what it was like on the outside,” says Mills. His last album, 2002’s The Silver Line, was a departure from his more folk-pop orientated songs into a new arena of sounds, much in the same vein as Wilco’s “Summerteeth.” Mills is taking chances, running his own record label, Powerless Pop Recorders, and pushing himself to explore the many possibilities that lay before him. A longtime fan, friend, and fellow singer-songwriter, John Wesley Harding, originally from Hastings, East Sussex in England, currently calls Brooklyn home, and recognizes the large step Mills has taken. “He’s very much part of the Chicago scene, and to me, to transport to Brooklyn is a difficult thing to do,” says Harding. “It just isn’t the same kind of local thing in New York as Chicago.”

The boy became a man.

The 1996 Nobody’s Favorite EP came on the heels of his 7” single. Impressed with his voice and taste in country covers while opening for his band at the Beat Kitchen, Glenn Kotche made a new musical friend before last call. Now as the drummer for Wilco, Kotche, then three years Mills’ senior, backed up Mills at various parties and shows before working with Mills on his EP. “We recorded Nobody’s Favorite in my apartment on Argyle in Uptown,” says Kotche. “We called it Argyle Manor.” Even as a young singer-songwriter, Mills had always felt his job was to be a writer, to get the words in his head onto paper and through a guitar. “I always felt compelled to write,” says Mills. He begins to laugh and says, “Self-importance, I think, was a motivator; the mistake that I had something to say that you might want to listen to.” For Kotche, the recording experience at his apartment is still very fresh in his mind. “I remember him just being completely excited and tweaked,” says Kotche. “It was almost like he couldn’t believe he was actually making a record of his song.”

There seemed to be no turning back. After Nobody’s Favorite came 1998’s Every Night Fight For Your Life and 2000’s Kiss It Goodbye. As the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun Times, Jim DeRogatis summed up those releases when he said, “All of them were good, but not great.” Mills was thrown into the alt-country pile, quite the easy thing to do for any music critic at that time that couldn’t easily categorize artists that married the pedal steel guitar with the drunken thrash-pop sensibilities of the Replacements. “I never really paid that much attention to it,” says Mills about the music labels. “I understood it cause I had an affinity in that direction. It probably applies to some of what I do or to some aspects of what I do.”

“Writers need help in a lot of ways; so, they have terms like that, for better or for worse. So, it never really bothered me. It never really informed what I did. Hopefully things that I did might have helped expand the definition of whatever label they put on it.”

A follow-up to The Silver Line is currently in the works. “It’s almost all written. We’ve sort of figured out how we’re going to do it,” says Mills. “It’s going to be different. It’ll be difficult to pigeonhole it as alt-country if it goes the way that we want to do it.”

Worrying about how people will classify Mills’ music is one thing, but seeking the advice of others is a whole other story. “He’s always been good at asking people advice, and stuff, and then ignoring it entirely,” jokes Harding. “But it’s good just to ask it.” When word of this reaches Mills he breaks out laughing but acknowledges the truth behind the observation. “I think in a weird way it’s how I know I’m sure I want to do something,” says Mills. “If Wes tells me it’s a bad idea, if Dave (Nagler), my arranger, tells me it’s a bad idea or whatever, or tells me to do it a certain way and I still want to do it the other way, then that must be the way to do it.”

“I don’t know why that is--it’s like a litmus test of what I’m really committed to doing something.”

What Mills doesn’t need advice about is connecting with people through music. As a teacher with the Music Together ( children’s program in Brooklyn—much like the Wiggleworms program at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago—Mills is reminded why he continues to pursue the path he has chosen. “I’m not going to know everybody that buys my records,” says Mills. “But in some way I’m connecting to them and we share a similar insight into things that are important to people in general, emotionally and whatever.”

“I need to have an affect on people. Music is an equalizer. It’s something that everybody has. It’s something that everybody can do.”

It’s that need and drive that keeps Mills looking forward. For him, it’s just as natural as breathing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Extra! Extra!

The September issue of Chicago Innerview is now available on-line.

I contributed a write-up on The Redwalls:

Scroll down the page to view the article. It is the final article of the page.