Redwalls come of age

November 4, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

In the fourth-quarter rush by the major labels to release their blockbusters in time for the holidays -- and hopefully redeem a pathetic year for conventional album sales -- the most worthy indie discs by local bands easily can be overlooked. This, of course, is a terrible injustice, especially when several of the latest discs from Chicago up-and-comers put more hyped product to shame. After the self-titled Bloodshot records debut by the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, my favorite is another eponymous offering, this one from the Redwalls.
The Redwalls, "The Redwalls" (Mad Dragon) 세섹

This suburban Deerfield foursome first emerged as a fresh-faced, teenaged Beatles cover band (they were called the Pages then); signed to Capitol Records for "De Nova" (2005), which was strong on songwriting but rather sterile in production; toured the world as an opening act for Oasis, among others, and then found themselves dropped by their major label as part of the increasing cost-cutting and corporate consolidation. A lesser group -- or one as obsessed with fame and fortune as some haters have accused this garage band of being -- would have thrown in the towel, but the Redwalls have bounced back with an even stronger effort, recently issued by Mad Dragon, a student-run label out of Drexel University in Philadelphia.

Although their reference points are still solidly rooted in the British Invasion, the group has beefed up its rhythms on record, incorporating more of the R&B swing and glam-rock swagger that was always part of its live shows, and capturing the energy and immediacy lacking on the last disc, thanks to a straightforward approach in the studio with producer Tore Johansson (the Cardigans, Franz Ferdinand, OK-Go). The unison and harmony vocals that have long been one of the quartet's strengths are even better here, with guitarist-vocalist Andy Langer growing a lot in his self-confidence, and all of the boys finally sound mature and wise enough to bring a convincing world-weary authority to songs such as "Hangman," "Modern Diet" and "Summer Romance," as sophisticated an opening salvo as you'll hear on any album this year.

The Redwalls perform at Metro, 3730 N. Clark, at 7 p.m. on Dec. 8. Jonathan Rice opens, and tickets are $15; call (773) 549-4140.

David Singer, "East of the Fault Line" (The Sweet Science Records) 세섹

Although he's one of Chicago's most consistently creative and cinematic singers and songwriters, David Singer has never broken out of the local scene to achieve the national recognition he so richly deserves, either as the frontman for Kid Million or leader of the Sweet Science, pretty much for the same reason that his music appeals to a dedicated core of adventurous fans: Although it contains elements of psychedelic rock, orchestral pop, emo and pure Tom Waits-like eccentricity, it never fits neatly into any one of those categories, asking that listeners be as open-minded and intelligent as the artist himself.

"East of the Fault Line" is another exquisitely tuneful and wonderfully thought-provoking collection of songs that opens with one of Singer's finest compositions ever, the wistful and aptly named "Amaranthine" (the dictionary defines the word as "eternally beautiful and unfading"), which finds the literary-minded lyricist shifting focus from a musing on those increasingly distant high school days to nothing less than what it all means: "But it's all just folderol -- a way to occupy your mind/Each pray's a casting call/You can't fight City Hall/I think the Good Lord just resigned."

Even if existentialism isn't your thing, you have to love an unforgettable pop song that so casually and effectively uses the word "folderol." And if this album isn't the one that finally helps Singer break through, maybe that will come courtesy of the fact that he's written the music for "August: Osage County," the Steppenwolf play opening on Broadway later this month.

The 1900s, "Cold & Kind" (Parasol) 세

With last year's promising "Plume Delivery" EP, the 1900s garnered a lot of attention as part of a promising surge in Chicago ork-pop bands, distinguishing themselves from the more up-tempo pop of the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir and the rather psychedelic sounds of Head of Femur via layers of male and female harmonies decorating gently lilting, mid-tempo folk-rock. The 12 tracks on the group's first full album offer more of the same, despite occasional surprises like gorgeous swelling strings or a burst of noisy Velvet Underground guitar. While some fans are citing Fleetwood Mac as the reference point, I hear a more lush version of Fairport Convention -- almost fragile at times, and with enough space in the arrangements of memorable tracks such as "City Water" and "No Delay" to make a shaking maraca or a wispy ghost of a harmony sound like a major musical event.

Head of Femur, "Leader and the Falcon" (The Extant Label) 세

Speaking of Head of Femur, the band has just released a fine, old-fashioned six-song EP as an appetizer to hold us over until the next album, "Great Plains." In addition to a cool cover of "100 Years Ago" from the Rolling Stones' "Goats Head Soup" and a giddy instrumental fancifully entitled "Skirts Are Takin' Over," the standout is the title track, an ever-shifting but always tuneful multi-part suite that highlights a growing interest in progressive-rock complexity and fantastic/surrealistic imagery, decorated, as in the past, with a lo-fi but delightfully ambitious array of instruments worthy of any high school orchestra.

Office, "A Night at the Ritz" (Scratchie/New Line)세

Though earlier recordings by this quintet were promising, singer and songwriter Scott Masson seems to have been unduly influenced by the buzz the band has been building, and the group goes a little too far with the slick, radio-friendly sound it brings to its debut for the indie label co-founded by James Iha of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Yes, there are infectious hooks on glam-rock/New Wave of New Wave songs such as "Oh My" and "The Ritz," but Masson's singing is too affected at times, and the glossy sound grows off-putting over the course of 13 tunes. No one needs another Killers.

Finally, a few quick words about the latest from two familiar names and long-time Chicago favorites.

Former Scratch Acid and Jesus Lizard vocalist David Yow, now based in Los Angeles, has returned to the music scene after an eight-year absence, fronting a new guitar/drums/vocals trio called Qui. Its debut album, "Love's Miracle" (Ipecac) 세, is a difficult listen, with the noise-rock grooves only hinting at the power of the trio onstage -- though of course, the same could be said of all of Yow's previous recordings.

On the other hand, Ministry has only grown more concise and inviting yet no less punishing over the course of what Chicago-to-Texas transplant Al Jourgensen has called the group's "farewell trio" of albums, starting with "Houses of the Mole" (2004) and continuing through "Rio Grande Blood" (2006) and now The Last Sucker (13th Planet/Megaforce) 세.Angry as ever, the group powers through an unrelenting set of politically-minded industrial thrash, pausing only long enough for an inspired cover of "Roadhouse Blues" by the Doors.

If this really is Ministry's last hurrah, it will have gone out on a pretty high note.

 

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