Category Archives: Chicago

Jonah Parzen-Johnson – “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow”

Jonah Parzen-Johnson’s music is an eclectic mix of soulful, street-corner solo sax melodies, gritty multiphonics and microtonal excursions against a backdrop of analog synths and various effects. His tone is impeccably clean one second and drenched in layered waves of pulsating echoes. He plays both with electronics and against them, sometimes using them as extensions of his horn, while at other times he’s using them to create dense contrapuntal layers.

Across his album “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow” these incredibly complex and vibrant ideas take shape within each track. Each song is a journey with its own twists and turns, and its own highs and lows. Contemplative one second, resolute the next. In the video for “I Wrote a Story About You, Without You” we get a clear visual analogue to the sounds. Life rushes around, filtered through clandestine security cameras in downtown Chicago and New York; soon its seen through the frantic movements of someone desperately searching google maps. At first the track’s opening soliloquy begins an ascending scale that slowly speeds up, is mixed with bright and reverberant harmonies, and then takes off into the realm of something a little more synthetic and frantic. Parzen-Johnson’s circular breathing, prolonging lines well beyond a single breath, only adds to the tension and propulsion. “I Wrote a Story…” captures a sort of sentimentality, but also an uneasiness, a malaise; perhaps something we all feel as we go about our daily lives, trying to remember what it is that we were planning on doing, and why it is that we aren’t doing it. We go on about our daily business anyway, trying to figure a way out.

That sentimentality, that same subtle melancholy is also captured on the album’s closing track, “On the Way Home.” Stripped of any electronics, we are treated to an extended melody with absolutely brilliant phrasing and control. Each small break between the phrases has me listening closer, waiting, and hoping that there will be more to come. Eventually, of course, the last phrase comes and goes and we are perhaps left feeling a lack of resolution, a wanting. Or maybe it’s that we are left in deep contemplation.

The entire album is brilliant, and just came out earlier this week on Primary Records. Parzen-Johnson, a Chicago native by the way, is out on an extensive tour in support of “Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow.” You can find dates below the video and you can also check out his website in order to get the album as a CD, digital download, or on limited 150g vinyl.


06/05/15 Seattle, WA Cafe Racer
06/06/15 San Fran, CA Center For New Music
with The Steven Lugerner Octet
06/08/15 Sacramento, CA Luna’s Cafe
Time: 7:30pm. Nebraska Mondays
06/09/15 Los Angeles, CA Moryork Gallery
06/11/15 Chicago, IL Elastic Arts
06/12/15 Milwaukee WI Frank’s Power Plant
w/Devin Drobka, Barry Paul Clark, and Jay Mollerskov
06/13/15 Madison, WI Bright Red Studios
06/15/15 Minneapolis, MN Ice House
w/ JT’s Jazz Implosion
06/16/15 St Louis, MO Foam
06/17/15 Louisville, KY Dreamland
06/19/15 Greensboro, NC New York PIzza
with Xelos Verv and Sun Swan
06/20/15 Durham, NC The Shed
with Polyorchard
06/21/15 Asheville, NC The Mothlight
06/24/15 Charlottesville The Garage
06/25/15 Washington DC 453 Florida Ave NW
06/27/15 Philadelphia, PA The First Banana with Accretionist, Daniel Fishkin, and LXV
06/30/15 Cambridge, MA Lilypad
07/01/15 Montreal QC La Passe Canada
07/02/15 Providence RI 186 Carpenter Street

onYou – “Ultimum Photon A Sole”

Going with the theme of nearly instrumental albums, today we have onYou’s “Ultimum Photon A Sole,” full of slowly emerging, ever-growing structures full of hypnotic repetition. The first track, “A Grift,” definitely takes its time getting started, with the vocals not making their entrance until about 3 minutes in. After laying down a very clearly kraut-rock influenced foundation it comes as a pleasant surprise that some new wave tendencies are brought out with the vocals. About three-quarters of the way through things start to veer sharply off into the land of psychedelia. The pulsating rhythm is stripped away, the keyboards fade, and the guitar and cymbals work together in creating a wash of sound. All of a sudden there’s an ocean where just a moment ago there was a factory.

And there are so many moments like that throughout this album. onYou has an uncanny ability to maneuver some pretty drastic leaps of style, working from the almost overbearing tightness of their precise, lock-step rhythm section to an amorphous cloud of eerie sound effects. Essentially, the band is taking a one-part form with a simple and fairly static harmonic pulse, and creating sections within that.

“Finding the Wronskian” flowers out of the ending of the album opener. The guitar lays down a sparse harmonic idea, and before long the bass and drums are back in the game, gathering up all the loose ends and pulling the whole thing along again. An incredibly slow crescendo continually promises a huge eventually payoff. As the guitar builds itself up from the background, alternately fighting against the noise while helping to build it, we reach the moment we have been made to wait for. No sooner than the song reached its goal everything collapses again. The actual payoff comes about 4 minutes into the next track, “The Wronskian.”

The constant back and forth from these repetitive, motorik sections to those with a considerable amount of noise that are nearly arrhythmic, is what this album is all about. Of course, the extreme degree to which onYou is able to string us along as listeners, really growing that sense of anticipation to incredible levels, is also a factor. Throw into the mix some psychedelia and a tiny bit of that New Wave color and you’re pretty much there. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the intense Pink Floyd vibe that album closer “Adrift on the Wind” lays down. The album closes on a really strong note, with a catchy and fairly straight ahead psych-rock tune.

“Ultimum Photon A Sole” is out now on Captcha records on 160g cyan vinyl, which is pretty sick looking. Of course you should check out the bandcamp page to order the vinyl, or get a digital copy.

Stream: Crown Larks – “Blood Dancer”

More often than not it seems that groups see the opportunity of entering a recording studio as a way to over-indulge. They spend thousands of hours on a single measure, making sure that absolutely every sound has been micro-managed to death. The end result is usually an album that is lifeless, unexciting, and devoid of all musicality.

“Blood Dancer” is very much not one of those albums. What you get from the second that you start it up is an album that slowly comes to life, developing over the course of its seven tracks. It’s pretty apt, then, that the first lyric on album opener “Gambian Blue Wave” is “Watch it unfurl…”  A song that sets the course for the floating, expansive ideas that form the foundation of all those that follow.

Each track finds itself somehow in the various worlds of krautrock, noise and experimental jazz-fusion, with trippy ethereal vocals popping up now and again. The best thing about listening to the album is the way that the band feeds off each other, and develops several different layers of sound slowly, steadily.

A generous mix of bleating horns, distorted guitars feeding back, and a barrage of drums brings us to “The Timebound Bloos,” which finds a strange way of starting a song in the middle, moving directly to a musical freak-out early Sonic Youth would be proud of.  Before long the song locks into a straight forward groove and promptly concludes.

I think that my favorite track is “Blood Mirage.” I have a tendency to fall for songs that have the ability to somehow sound as if they are dragging time backwards; somehow in slow motion and real-time at the exact same time. The way that everything lays so far back in the groove – the Rhodes and drums particularly – just makes you feel like time is moving so much slower. It’s a weird kind of transfixion, and the way that everything clears out toward the middle of the track to lock down a steady (and strictly in time) propulsive krautrock groove brings that meditative type state to a whole other level.

The best way to put it, I think, would be to say that the songs on “Blood Dancer” are a mix of “Dark Side of the Moon,” and “Bitches Brew,” filtered through Can’s “Ege Bamyasi.” And I could go into detail about each of the songs, as they each cover some particularly interesting territory and are worth multiple listens for sure, but I think it would be best to let you explore for yourself. Sit back and listen to the entire album in a sitting, and then start it over and do it again.

The album is available in every format you can think of, including deluxe 150 g vinyl and CD, by Spacelung/Landbreathing Records; and as an imprinted cassette through the Chicago boutique label Already Dead. You can order the album in any format, as well as stream it through the band’s bandcamp page.

Crown Larks are also on tour throughout the midwest, East Coast and even a few dates in Canada. You can check those dates here.

 

 

Stream: Espectrostatic – “Escape from Witchtropolis”

As soon as the drums come in on the song “Escape from Witchtropolis” you can tell exactly what is going to happen. It’s just got that perfect krautrock sound: the motorik beat, barely audible syncopated hi-hat and completely lacking in the drum-fill department. Some of the retro synth sounds remind of RJD2′s work to a certain extent. On top of all that I think that the track is perfectly named, with it’s winding, demented sounding lead line adding a whole new element to the mix.

There’s a lot going on across “Escape…” from the aforementioned brooding synths, to the bombastic percussion of “The Feral Kids,” which makes good use of the piano as a percussion instrument; those loud low end attacks really give you the force of the low fundamental with just a hint of the brightness from the upper partials. Colder synths prevail on “This is a War Universe,” working in all dimensions by adding a spaciousness to the recording. Though the synths are going direct, the piano has been recorded with a lot of room noise this time, opening up the recording dramatically. Still, though, “This is a War Universe” is largely a synth affair, continuing to capture the brooding atmosphere presented on previous tracks.

Espectrostatic also finds the time to play with form, shuttling from the more familiar structures of the beautifully contrapuntal, “The Obelisk” and the title track, to tracks that express an environment in their one-part form such as “Sinking into the Microverse.”

“Espectrostatic” is the solo project of Alex Cuervo of the Hex Dispensers. “Escape from Witchtropolis” is out now on Chicago’s Trouble in Mind records. You can purchase the album as a download from his bandcamp. The album is also available as a CD that comes in a gatefold miniature LP-style cardboard sleeve, or as an LP from the Trouble in Mind site.

Stream: Deep Waters – “Visions in Flame”

I’m going to start the week on a much more relaxed note than I usually do. The latest release from the small-batch vinyl and tape label Already Dead released Deep Waters’ latest six-song EP offering as a limited cassette, as per usual, but has also made “Visions in Flame” available as an even more limited (only 25 produced) cassette bundled with a full color, hand-made book. You can check out the detail of the book in the video preview below.

The limited edition book looks to truly be an extension of the music. As a companion piece the design, with pictures of the American landscape deepens the country inflected folk that Deep Waters presents us with throughout “Visions in Flame.”

Specifically, the songs create a laid-back atmosphere that takes equally from the sound of Jason Molina and Canadian country-folk-rock band Cuff the Duke. The up-front vocals, somehow both perfectly mellowed and rough around the edges, are nicely contrasted with lush reverted lead guitar lines that emerge from the arrangements organically. The mostly instrumental “Holiday” opens up with co-mingled lead lines from steel string acoustic and reverbed electric before the vocals and ubiquitous supporting vocals enter, building up the texture little by little across the brief song, clocking in at just under two minutes.

The highlight across the EP are the perfectly executed harmonies. Take, for example, the opening track “Golden Flame;” the interludes interspersed between the verses add an affecting lift to the underlying rhythmically active foundation. The entire release seems to focus around these guitar breaks, maintaining a timbral similarity throughout. Such a focus is always something that I appreciate, it never fails to help an album to cohere, and this album is no different. The ambience curated across these six tracks, with the guitars and understated backing vocals occasionally backed with a delicately played piano, evokes the image of an intimate setting, perhaps in a small performance; or listening to the car radio on a cold fall day early in the morning down a quiet back road.

“Visions in Flame” is currently available from Already Dead tapes. You can listen to the entire album above and head over to Bandcamp to pick up the limited cassette with or without the special edition book.

Stream: Me Jane – “ISON”

Further evidence that Chicago is the place to be when it comes to interesting new bands sprouting up constantly. Me Jane is a quartet that met in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood and has since released a demo and a single, and now their debut full-length entitled “ISON.”

The production is stripped down and transparent, making the overall sound of the songs reminiscent of Wire’s “Pink Flag,” or early Cure, but the songs here have a tendency to be somewhat more ebullient at times, alternating with inquisitive melancholy – or at least nostalgia. Me Jane walks a tightrope, balancing the stark production with touches of dream-pop and deeply affecting guitar leads.

Take the track “Ghost” for example. As the guitars fade in and the synth emerges from the background a multi-layered song structure is beginning to take shape. More instrumental than lyrical, I think the band’s ensemble work and craftsmanship really shines on “Ghost.” I can’t help but feel that, on the track that immediately follows, “Racket,” the singer is channeling a bit of Wild Flag era Carrie Brownstein. The sharp crescendos that punctuate each vocal phrase, and just the delivery in general – with the backing vocals also owing to the Wild Flag sound – borrows elements from a style, without coming off at all like a cheap imitation.

It’s the moments where the guitar breaks free a little bit, with a kind of reverbed surf-rock tone, that really define Me Jane’s sound. They seem to be testing out a bunch of different approaches across the album, but their distinctive and original voice is most certainly coming through loud and clear.

“ISON” came out this past May and can be purchased either digitally from their bandcamp page, or on limited edition white vinyl directly from the Me Jane site. They also have a few shows coming up in September in Chicago if you happen to be in the area. Dates and other things can be found at their awesomely named website: mejaneyoulisten.com

Stream: The Swan King – “Last So Long”

For some reason or another the band Pelican popped into my mind just yesterday. I was mentioning some metal bands to someone, and all of a sudden the memory of that band sprang to mind, even though I wouldn’t be able to name a single song of theirs if I tried. I do remember listening to them a while back and I can feel their sound in remembering them. So I thought that it would be fitting to post about The Swan King today, seeing as how Pelican’s guitarist is playing with them; that and both bands seem to conjure the same sound-images in my mind.

Heavy, palm-muted chunks of distortion, but not the kind of uncontrolled distortion like what I posted about yesterday. This is the precise and sharp cut of thrash metal. Think Pantera without all the mid-rangeyness of Dimebag’s guitar. I guess while I’m comparing things, I could draw a line from Mastodon to The Swan King, though the latter is significantly more straightforward in their approach. The guitar work is equally dexterous, and the riffs arguably just as powerful, if a little slower. Slow usually translates to heavier though, and add to that that it sounds as if the guitar here is at least a minor 3rd down from standard tuning. It’s got a nice, almost warbling crunch to it, most noticeable on “Closer to the Source.”

The pulsating chug of “Built to Break” has about as close to a hook as a metal song can have. It’s on that track the band really shows that they aren’t relying solely upon punishing riffs, but can also think a little more melodically, with clear, open voiced chords fitting right in with a crunchy low string barrage in the bridge section. The fact that there’s a nice modulation right before the vocals comes in is also a nice touch. Along the same lines, the title track is equally as affective at creating catchy hooks out of thrash metal material. There are sections of “Last So Long” that are pretty close to what could easily be described as “anthemic.” The band also displays a penchant for extended instrumental sections between verses that aren’t necessarily filled with busy fretwork. Instead, it’s in these sections that the band tends to ruminate on some extraneous ideas that fit nicely within the song’s context. They will, however, not wait too long to remind you that they are here to shred, as evidenced by the opening of “As It Is” with it’s sweep-picked runs and persistent double kick drum action.

“Last So Long” was officially released this past Tuesday, June 3rd. It was recorded in their hometown of Chicago at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio. You can check out the entire album above.