2013 In Review: Notes from the Chicago Underground

2013 In Review: Notes from the Chicago Underground

"I am an American, Chicago born-- Chicago, that somber city-- and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."

I’m not sure Saul Bellow had the city’s future rock & roll scene in mind when writing The Adventures of Augie March, his 1953 bildungsroman about the titular character’s trials and tribulations in and around Chicago, Illinois. However, the opening lines reprinted above and Augie’s attitude throughout the novel reflect a key trait that Chicago’s artists, past and present, would seem to me to share: namely, a balancing of good-natured (“innocent”) Midwesternism and hard-nosed (perhaps “not so innocent”) will to “make the record in [their] own way.”

In the past couple years, Chicago has come up in the music blogosphere largely (and deservedly) because it's the hometown of footwork, a genre that certainly reflects Bellow’s depiction of Chicago’s restlessly, ruggedly individualistic character. But this attitude also comes across plainly in the city’s contemporary rock scene, which had previously been fairly insular, with bands mainly just touring the Midwest and putting out records on local-ish labels. But Chicago rock spread its wings a bit in 2013. For instance, Running put out a record on California’s Castle Face; Bitchin Bajas moved to a bigger label and took their show on the road; Oozing Wound and Tiger Hatchery did the same; and best-band-in-Chicago, Wilco, toured with Bob Dylan. But there’s even more going on, musically, in “that somber city,” so what follows is a rundown of its major underground players and our favorite things they did this year.

Cooper Crain and Permanent Records

As evidenced by the sheer stylistic diversity of the aforementioned bands, Chicago’s underground rock music is marked by its lack of stylistic continuity, with bands in the same “scene” making wildly different music from one another. Chicago musicians, more than most, make the “record” in their own way; many of the releases in this post aren't just unique in the context of their scene, but also diverse within their own confines. Hometown hero Cooper Crain had a particularly various and excellent year, having been responsible in part for many of 2013’s finest Chicago records. In addition to putting out noteworthy albums with his own transcendental kraut-groups, Bitchin Bajas and Cave, Crain had a creative hand in Circuit des Yeux’s Overdue, Toupee’s Dinner Parties, Ryley Walker’s The West Wind, Basic Cable’s I’m Good To Drive, and The Funs’ The Funs, among others. Each of those records is excellent, and each of them is wildly different than the last. Crain’s multiplicitous activity hints at the scene’s communality, which is, at a glance, at odds with its rugged individualism. However, it points to an ever-present Midwestern trait, sometimes dormant but never absent among Chicagoans: extreme friendliness.

Encouraging the proliferation of bands and side-projects, too, is the proliferation of quality record labels in Chicago. Looking back to Chess and Delmark, et. al., Chicago has long been home to forward-thinking labels, eager to put out music by local groups. That tradition is most visible to the underground rock crowd, though, through institutions like Touch & Go and, subsequently, Drag City and Thrill Jockey. Those latter two labels had banner years in 2013, releasing essentials albums by Chicagoans (Cave, Bitchin Bajas, Oozing Wound, etc.) and non-Chicagoans (Mick Turner, Magik Markers, The Body, Black Twig Pickers, et. al.) alike. However, it’s important to look beyond those eternally relevant imprints to the city’s smaller labels, like HoZac, Hausu Mountain, Trouble In Mind, Numero, Moniker, Captcha (which is sadly moving to California), Addenda, Lake Paradise... Going in depth about every worthwhile label in Chicago in 2013 would necessitate a book. As such, I’ll focus on a couple.

Doubling as perhaps Chicago’s best record store, Permanent Records has been a necessary institution in Chicago’s outré-rock music scene for over a half-decade. (This fall, it hosted its anniversary concert, featuring some of Chicago’s premier bands-- Verma, Basic Cable, Rectal Hygienics, The Funs-- at one of Chicago’s premier venues, The Empty Bottle.) Though label heads Lance Barresi and Liz Tooley now live in Los Angeles, the label maintains a strong Chicago presence. For one, they released Bitchin Bajas' Krausened, one of this year’s absolute best albums and, for my money, even better than Bitchin Bajas’ more widely released Bitchitronics. Over its two side-long tracks, Krausened begins with Bitchitronics-style pure kosmische, but proceeds to move back and forth between that and motorik, Cave-ian krautrock. It’s a more consciously dynamic release, definitely, than Bitchitronics; however, Krausened’s driving minimalist beats assist transcendence as well as the former record’s synthesized meditations do, albeit in a different way.

Rotted Tooth Recordings and Toupee’s Dinner Parties

On a similar end of the musical spectrum is Rotted Tooth Recordings, a small label run by Kyle Reynolds of Oozing Wound (and formerly of noise-rockers, Cacaw), that has a slightly more focused musical aesthetic-- grimy noise-punk, etc.-- coursing through its small-but-excellent roster of releases. The label’s only release this year is also one of its best ever: Toupee’s Dinner Parties, a throw-everything-in-the-pot post-punk record, like a powerviolence group covering The Raincoats and Beat Happening. Toupee is equally adept at crafting atmospheric new wave and growling hardcore, and they do both back-to-back, over and over, on Dinner Parties, somehow keeping the record cohesive throughout.

Beyond Dinner Parties, Kyle Reynolds kept busy-- not only with Oozing Wound, who emerged as one of the city’s breakout bands, but also by organizing the Rotted Tooth Fest, which took place in mid-July as a DIY answer to the Pitchfork Music Festival. Taking the place of the legendary Bitchpork, Rotted Tooth went down in a sweaty house in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood and featured many of the bands mentioned in this post (Running, Toupee, Rectal Hygienics, some others), as well as non-Chicagoans like Wolf Eyes and Sewn Leather. Label boss, drummer, show organizer: Reynolds builds on the trend of Chicago music people wearing many hats, like Cooper Crain, the folks at Permanent, etc. And it could be said that that, too, is a part of the Chicagoan’s character-- Augie March, for instance, is forever restless, changing jobs, trying new things.

Recording shows and Le Tour’s Christian Guilt

Also continuing this trend in Chicago’s current underground is Notes and Bolts, a label/podcast/show recorder, etc. They’ve released music by many of Chicago’s most vital acts over the last couple years, such as Plastic Crimewave, Disappears, White Mystery, and Chandeliers, plus several releases in 2013 alone by people like Mines, TALSounds (member of noise-people Good Willsmith), and Le Tour, a new group featuring members of old favorites, Black Math and Mannequin Men. Le Tour’s Christian Guilt is one of the year’s most baffling cassettes-- a mess of mistake-riddled psych-pop, driven alternately by spaced-out drum machines and clattering acoustic percussion. In true Chicago fashion, each song’s quite different from the last, all the while recalling different strands of the 1980s underground-- from 99 Records to Pussy Galore to The B-52s-- without ever sounding nostalgic.

Notes and Bolts’ most enduring contribution to Chicago’s music scene, though, might be The Chicago Underground Music Archive, an astounding, growing collection of live audio recordings from shows in Chicago featuring most of the above bands in addition to countless others. It's an immersive and singular way of diving into Chicago’s contemporary music scene, and is especially appreciated by those of us who’ve semi-reluctantly moved away from the city. (Note: I was born and raised in Chicago but have lived in New York for the last few years.)

In that respect, it’s a similar project to that of Gonzo Chicago, a video blog started several years ago by John Yingling documenting DIY shows throughout the city. Gonzo Chicago, like many of the bands it covers, took its show on the road in 2013, spending the first chunk of the year in Missoula, Montana before packing it all up to document the underground rock scene in China, for a series Yingling started called The World Underground. He's currently working on the documentary.

“Jane Addams too knew that Chicago’s blood was hustler’s blood,” wrote Nelson Algren (probably the most Chicago-y of Chicago writers, more so even than Bellow or Richard Wright or Floyd Dell, etc.) in his 1951 epic prose poem, Chicago: City on The Make. “Knowing that Chicago,” he continues, “like John the Baptist and Bathhouse John, like Billy Sunday and Big Bill, forever keeps two faces, one for winners and one for losers; one for hustlers and one for squares.” Algren contrasts the city's mid-day bustle and its midnight quiet, its “poets” and “promoters,” its good boys and bad, its Sox fans and Cubs fans. Multiplicity and nuance, the complicated blend of a tough shell and a sweet-but-not-soft core, define the character of the Chicagoan and, Algren points out, specifically the Chicagoan artist.

It’s this attitude, this spirit-- prevalent in Algren’s epoch, and in Theodore Dreiser’s and Muddy Waters’ and Roscoe Mitchell’s and Ed Paschke’s and Steve Albini’s, etc., etc., etc.-- that makes Chicago’s music scene a “scene.” It’s what keeps it going-- and growing-- and continuously creatively fertile as the city moves through a difficult era not only for artists, but for most everyone who lives there. Yeah, for the first time in a while, Chicago’s as messy a place as it was when Algren was growing up; however, “once you’ve come to be part of this particular patch,” Algren notes, “you’ll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies. But never a lovely so real.”

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