Monday, November 30, 2009

Show preview: Sarah Pray at Underground Lounge, 12/10

Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Sarah Pray is coming to Chicago for a set at Underground Lounge on Thursday, December 10 (8 p.m., 952 W Newport Ave.), and we recently caught up with her for a Q&A to preview the show.

Pray has been touring extensively and getting ready to release an album, Empty Words, in the coming months. The tracks up for preview are diverse in style - from alt-rock ("Thank God") to nostalgic 50s-styled doo-wop ("Still Here") to acoustic folk ("One Night Stand") - but the one constant is her passionate, soaring voice. Her singing grabs hold right away and allows her material to fully shine. With a songwriting ability and delivery that are both genuinely impressive, Pray's live show should be well worth checking out.

LISTEN: Sarah Pray - "Thank God"

Q&A with Sarah Pray

WCR: First off, tell us a bit about your history as a musician. How and when did you start writing and performing?

SP: Actually my dad taught me piano out of the womb and that's where I learned the basics and a love for music. I never considered writing my own songs until about four years ago when I starting playing the guitar. I don't know why exactly, but the unfamiliarity of strings against my fingers made me want to unbottle feelings. Though, lately I've been writing more and more on the piano. My earliest shows were at various bars around the Twin Cities. The 400 Bar in Minneapolis is where I gained the most experience and confidence in performing.

You're currently working on an album, Empty Words, for release in 2010 to follow-up your debut EP. Tell us about the recording process so far and what we can expect to hear in the material.

Yeah, I've been recording with a great producer, Bill Maynard, at Paradyme Productions in Madison, WI. The process has been pretty organic and exciting, I think because of our openness to try anything and let the song take its proper course. For example "Still Here," which I wrote while working at a nursing home and from the perspective of some of the folks there missing their spouses, became a song straight out of the 50s. We degraded the sound quality, added record hiss and a horn section. I might add a spoken word section too if I can pull off that sexy voice thing girl groups had back in the day. But some of the songs we're recording are more alt-country and even a little R&B, so I intend the record to be diverse as possible.

Of all the songs you've done so far, which is is your favorite - or at least the one you'd like people to hear the most - and why?

I have several songs that I can't wait to record, but so far I'm most proud of "Thank God." The first line is "paid my rent last time," which is what I did at the beginning of this year. I decided to move in with a friend and quit my jail-like job so I could afford touring and playing music full time. I remember writing the lyrics on a napkin during my work break a few months before I quit. I think the song really motivated me to actually do what I was daydreaming about at work and I hope the song captures some of the frustration on behalf of so many people I know who feel trapped in their lives, whether it be a job they can't quit or a dream they can't pursue. It also features this dude named God, and he told me you should all listen to the song.

In terms of influences who do you think people would most likely be able to hear in your music, and also who might they be surprised to learn has been an inspiration?

I like the bitchiness of Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey, the prettiness and mellowness of Sarah McLachlan and Patty Griffin. What else...actually, I was Linda in a Linda Ronstadt tribute band for a while so I really appreciate the strength and power behind her voice and the 60s and 70s rock genres that she was a part of.

You were last in Chicago in October for a show with Jim Lauderdale at Uncommon Ground. How did that go?

Great. Jim is an amazing songwriter and has written songs for the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless and many great female artists. He played a song called "Why Do I Love You" that night that made me cry just a little bit. The song is no longer in circulation so I think it would be cool to revive it and possibility include it on my album. Jim gave me the OK so we'll see! I like the idea of songs having a life of their own, starting in their creator and then passing through each generation, crossing genres, and hopefully living on forever.

You're getting set to return to Chicago soon for a December 10 show at Underground Lounge. What about Chicago and its music scene stands out to you or differs from Minneapolis and other cities you've played?

I grew up in Madison, WI, so Chicago was my first big city experience. I've always been intimidated by it ever since I got dropped off in downtown Chicago for a middle school band trip and didn't know what to do for the day. I think I'm still recovering from the traumatic experience, but I will say I've met some great Chicago bands and visual artists through playing festivals around Wicker Park and Lincoln Park. The music scene here feels similar to that of Minneapolis and many cities of its size in that it's pretty eclectic and always changing.

It's obvious you put a lot of effort into performing in various states and cities outside of where you're based, with a list of past shows that spans everywhere from LA to Atlanta to New York. Why is it important for you to get out on the road and how do you think it's impacted your time as a musician so far?

Yeah, traveling is what makes me happy. Even though it makes me lonely and smelly at times, it feels like living in the moment. For me that directly translates to better songwriting and better performing. It allows me to stumble upon and reach out to inspiring people and inspiring music. It also allows me to play and write songs every day because I don't have anywhere else to be but on the road. Also, the driving really calms me down and gives me space to think, which I sometimes forget to do!

Where has been your favorite place to play a show?

Probably at the Basement in Nashville. It's a venue in the basement of a record store called Grimey's and very cool indeed. I'm not even that into country music, but I've never been so blown away by the talent while walking up and down Broadway Street. I would definitely consider moving there for a while just to be around that environment.

Apart from the release of your album, what can we expect from you in the coming months? Are there any additional projects or live dates in the works?

Well, actually I'll be on my first European tour December through February. Hopefully I'll be technologically savvy enough to update MySpace with pictures and videos. I must say I'm a little nervous about the whole thing, but obviously excited. I'll be playing a bunch of shows in Germany, but hitting most countries in Western Europe. When I get back the plan is to finish recording the album.

Where can people go to find out more about you and your music?
is the most updated source for shows, new music and news about the album release. I love to make Twitter friends with people, too ( Facebook is just as addictive at www.facebook/sarahpraymusic. I'll have some songs available on iTunes by the new year, too!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

New Chicago music: The Black Tape

Proudly wearing a fondness for 60s guitar pop a la The Zombies, The Byrds and early Beatles on their sleeves, The Black Tape are a recently-formed Chicago four-piece already working hard to put their stamp on the scene. In just a few months the band have played a handful of shows around the city (with three more already lined up) and have uploaded four demo tracks for preview on their MySpace site. The songs are an impressive introduction, completely sidestepping any of the gimmicks or pretense of modern day indie rock in favor of timeless, heartfelt power pop that's well-written and well-performed. The highlight, "I Love You" - with its "Be My Baby" drum intro, 60s girl group melody and shimmering guitar - is irresistible, wide-eyed musical candy through and through. "Sunday" is nearly as addictive, bringing to mind Marshall Crenshaw and Matthew Sweet at their most upbeat and pop-minded. The lengthy, low-key "Everytime I Stop to Breathe," although an admirable effort, is the closest the band comes to sounding uninspired, but all is put back on track with the spirited melodic rocker "Summertime." Off the strength of these songs alone it's apparent The Black Tape have a great thing going on, and anyone with a soft spot for hooky, melodic guitar pop would do well to give them a listen.

Download Mp3: The Black Tape - "I Love You"

The Black Tape are Rashid Lamarre (vocals/guitar), Kyle Hartman (guitar), Ryan Staples (bass), and Jamie Mcgaw (drums). Check out the band live at one of their three upcoming shows: The Underground Lounge on December 5, Subterranean on December 16 and Phyllis's Musical Inn on January 21.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Q&A: Company of Thieves

Nobody can pin a lack of ambition on Chicago-formed alt-rock/pop trio Company of Thieves. In just a few short years as a unit, singer Genevieve Schatz, guitarist Marc Walloch and drummer Mike Ortiz have accumulated an impressive list of accomplishments and the sort of widespread attention that most bands would envy. Their debut record, Ordinary Riches (released in January on Wind-Up Records), led to extensive touring as well as radioplay and TV spots stretching well beyond the Windy City.

The band is getting ready to play their first hometown show in over a year on Saturday, November 28 at Logan Square Auditorium (also with Annuals, Big Science and Mike Maimone. 6:30 p.m., $12, tickets available here). In advance of the show, WCR caught up with Walloch to talk about the band's experiences to date and what's in store for the future.

WCR: Since releasing Ordinary Riches early this year, the record – the song “Oscar Wilde,” especially – has brought you quite a bit of widespread attention. What’s that been like? What’s been the biggest highlight so far?

It’s hard to pinpoint one highlight. We have been working non-stop for three years and have had so many ups and downs and amazing experiences. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with any success or notoriety that we are receiving because we are always on the go and always trying to improve as a band. Although, every now and then we get a moment of clarity and realize how amazing our lives have become. We set specific goals a while ago and everything has gone to plan exactly the way we dreamt it to. That alone is the biggest highlight for me. There is no better feeling than to work so hard at something and have it pay off and touch other people.

As you know, Chicago is filled with indie bands struggling to get noticed, many times even within the local scene. What do you think has been the secret to COT’s success and what advice do you have for other bands trying to get people listening?

I think the biggest problem that we see is that many bands want everything to happen overnight. It takes so much commitment and dedication. There are so many bands in Chicago that are very amazing but never play and move forward. My only advice is to surround yourself with good people, be real and stop at nothing to get your music heard if you believe in it. Take risks! That has been our secret, I guess.

As a band from Chicago that’s been able to tour nationally and gain exposure outside of the area, how do you think Chicago’s music scene is unique and how do you think the city has influenced the band?
There is a different vibe from Midwestern bands in general. We have seen so many talented bands and artists all over the country, but after growing up in the Midwest music scene, you quickly see a difference in how bands work. On the coasts, bands seem much more relaxed about getting out there. When we were kids, it was very common for local bands to sell out House of Blues! Bands really hustle and do it independently to build a grassroots following vs. trying to go from 0-10 overnight. So, I guess, with that being said, there is a sense of urgency with Midwest bands. When you live in the Midwest, you experience many seasonal changes. That alone does something different in your blood.

In Chicago, there has always been a great community among bands and artists. I like to compare it to Greenwich Village in the 70s. Everyone is playing shows with each other and trying to help each other out. Bands are always going to see each others' shows for support and give feedback on the music. I don’t think that happens everywhere.

Tell us about the inspiration behind some of the songs on Ordinary Riches. Are there any band favorites, and how did they come to be?

We are inspired by so many different things; Music, movies, books, real life experiences, interesting people, etc. Most of the songs are about the ideals and view of the world and society while coming of age and all the changes that come with that. Some of my favorite songs on the record would have to be "Old Letters" and "The Fire Song." The Fire Song" was written when I was going through a horrible time and I just played that main riff over and over and I started to hum the opening melody. When I showed it to Genevieve she somehow related it to a time when she was younger and her house burned down to the ground in front of her and her family’s eyes! That song is about realizing that your home isn’t necessarily a physical building. Sometimes it's what you hold close to your heart no matter where you are. That’s how a lot of our songs came about. We wouldn’t really discuss content until later, but somehow the content matched how the music sounded. That happened with "The Tornado Song," too. I had no idea what the song was going to be about while writing it, but then it ended up sounding like a tornado!

Ordinary Riches is pop, but there’s a definite sense of sophistication and maturity running through it that gives the material a distinct sound. Is this a vibe you purposely set out to create? What’s the band’s writing process like?
I think one of the reasons why this record is so special to us is because we never had any plans to sound like anything specific. We were a bunch of lost kids who never wrote a song and we just pieced together a bunch of ideas like a puzzle, and three years later we are hearing sold out crowds scream the songs back to us around the country. It’s absolutely insane to us. We still live by that mentality, though. We make songs with no rules or boundaries. Anything goes. We don’t really have a writing process, either. It’s fun to write songs differently so they don’t start sounding the same. Sometimes I’ll write music and give it to Gen or vise-versa. Sometimes I’ll sing a melody to Gen and we will work on it together. Now that we have a family-oriented band, we will make a lot of the songs as a group effort, as well.

Some of the band’s influences – such as the Beatles, singer-songwriters in the vein of Fiona Apple and even jazz – come through clearly in the music. These might not be too shocking, but what would listeners likely be surprised has influenced the band?

We like to hold onto a lot of music that we grew up on in the early 90s. We still appreciate hard grungy rock such as Nirvana, STP, Weezer, Silverchair, The Smashing Pumpkins, and so on. We also love good hip-hop like Mos Def and The Fugees.

By now you guys have racked up an impressive list of live gigs. Are there any that stand out as being particularly memorable?

Still to this day one of our most memorable shows was our first CD release show back in 2007. We sold out the Beat Kitchen after working on our record for months. All of our family and friends that have been supporting us throughout that period were there and it felt great. I think another one might be when we went to San Diego for the first time and played to a sold out crowd of 700 people. It was very bizarre and surreal to never have played there and have all those people tear the roof off.

What’s a COT live show like? Do you think the band’s sound is best taken in on record or at a gig?

Our shows are very raw, energetic and exciting. We have played these songs so much and still find discoveries in the songs so there is always spontaneity. No matter what we are going through, our biggest goal is that every single person in the audience is having fun. I think that lately our sound is best taken live, but we hope to work on making a great record that captures who we are.

Now that Ordinary Riches has been out for a while, looking back is there anything you would do differently with the release if you could do it over?

It’s strange that I would have to say no. Even though we made many mistakes, each one was a huge learning experience and got us to where we are today.

On a similar note, what can people expect from future COT material? Can we expect it to go down a similar path to what we heard on Ordinary Riches or are there any new twists in the works?

I don’t know how we would make another Ordinary Riches even if we tried. We have grown so much so there will definitely be twists and things that might seem unexpected, but that’s what makes us Company of Thieves.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Win a Weezer CD, vote for the band to play your school

Want a free copy of Weezer's new CD Raditude? In honor of T-Mobile's "Motorola CLIQ Challenge" YouCast Corp has provided Windy City Rock a copy to give away to one lucky reader. For a chance to win, all you have to do is send an e-mail to us at with your name, mailing address and "Weezer contest" as the subject line by 7 p.m. Central Standard Time on Friday, November 20. We'll randomly select and notify a winner from all entries.

The CLIQ challenge is a competition that gives Weezer fans the chance to vote for the band to play a show at their local college campus by voting for their school of choice on Facebook. The winning school will not only score the Weezer show, but also $1 for every vote it received, up to $25,000. Chicago-area schools are currently lagging behind, so be sure to go vote and spread the word. Voting is open through November 30.

Separate from the contest, Weezer currently has a Chicago show scheduled for Tuesday, December 1 at the Aragon Ballroom. Tickets are $44.75 and at the time of writing are available through Ticketmaster.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

CD review: The Streets on Fire - 'Hot Weekend'

Chicago indie four piece The Streets on Fire formed in the not-too-distant past in a rundown currency exchange, setting the stage for what would become their debut release, Hot Weekend. The eight-song result is a lo-fi garage-dance-post punk hybrid that's down-and-dirty yet accessible in all the right places, brimming with energy and rock 'n' roll swagger. Standout tracks such as "1964," "Flannel Attack" and "Supersonic Lovelife" are frantic, revved-up bursts of fun with hints of menace and madness, featuring in-your-face guitar work from Yuri Alexander, hard-hitting percussion from Gabriel Palomo and the infectious, fuzzed-out bass lines of Sebastian Brzek. Most immediate, though, are the distinctive vocals of front man Chadwick, whose delivery wavers from cocksure to dangerously near nervous breakdown, giving the material an extra shot of personality. Hot Weekend is a solid introduction that should be a hit with any fan of gritty, danceable rock and roll.

Listen to a track below and get the album now on iTunes and Amazon MP3.

The Streets on Fire - "Supersonic Lovelife"

The Streets on fire will play Cal's Bar on Saturday, November 21 with Michele Ari (interview here), Tommy Ache & the Terrible Mistakes and A Sample Life (400 S. Wells, 10 p.m., $5). The band also have shows lined up for December 12 at Bottom Lounge and January 21 at Double Door.

Video: "We Play With Tigers":

THE STREETS ON FIRE - "We Play With Tigers" music video from Conor Simpson on Vimeo.

Two Chicago bands score a whole lotta tacos

Chicago-based acts Scotland Yard Gospel Choir and AM Taxi won't be facing a shortage of late night snacks anytime soon. The two are among 100 bands nationwide that were selected to receive $500 in "Taco Bell Bucks" as part of Taco Bell's "Feed the Beat" contest.

The Scotland Yard Gospel Choir are still recovering from a serious van accident that took place in September and left multiple members injured, so hopefully the announcement will serve as a morale-booster. Congratulations to both bands!

According to the announcement, winning bands will also receive marketing support to help get the word out about their music.

Other acts on the list include The All-American Rejects, Atreyu, Electric Six, Less Than Jake, Owl City and Dr. Dog. Click here to check out all 100.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Video: Welcome to Ashley - 'Wild Blue Yonder'

Here's a cool music video that came to our attention today from Chicago's Welcome to Ashley. The clip was made for the band and their song "Wild Blue Yonder" by a UK-based video artist (sundaegirl2004 on YouTube). Good stuff!

The band is set to play their next Chicago show at Schubas on December 9 with Adam Ashbach and Red Light Driver. Click here for more info.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Skybox announce release date, tracklist for 'Morning After Cuts'

Back in February Chicago-based indie outfit Skybox unveiled a deliciously poppy new song, "In a Dream," slated for their sophomore LP Morning After Cuts. Now the band have revealed an official release date and track listing for the record. Due out on January 19, 2010, Morning After Cuts will include the following nine songs:

1. Morning After Cuts
2. Light
3. Slipping
4. In a Dream
5. Buckets
6. Fences
7. Plastic Cups
8. Everyone Falls In
9. Trout

The band have made "In a Dream" available for free download, and another track, the mellow, acoustic "Slipping," can be previewed on their MySpace page.

Morning After Cuts follows-up the 2006 Skybox debut, Arco Iris (reviewed here).

Web music player

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Mal a' propos: An interview with Michele Ari

Photo by Richard Call

I can clearly remember the first time I heard Michele Ari's music. We had connected on MySpace of all places, where it's incredibly easy to ignore musicians because there's so many and most of them aren't very good, but that just wasn't possible with Michele. There was something special about her that instantly drew me in and made me click to play her song "My Sleeping Beauty." What I heard coming out of my speakers sounded like what might happen if you could infuse Echo & the Bunnymen's "Killing Moon" with the essence of Debbie Harry, the spirit of old school R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, and a dash of the Ronettes for good measure. Before half of the song was over I was a devoted fan.

Michele and I quickly struck up a friendship and I've known her now through a series of adventures and misadventures, all of which have lead up to this month's release of her new EP, mal a' propos (French for "out of place"). She currently lives in Nashville and is coming to town to play her first Chicago show Saturday, November 21 at Cal's Bar (400 S Wells, 10 p.m., $5) with A Sample Life, Tommy Ache & the Terrible Mistakes and The Streets on Fire. She will also appear on Fearless Radio at 4 p.m. central the same day. To prepare for the show, download the opening track from mal a' propos below and read on for an interview with one of my favorite musicians and friends.

Download MP3: Michele Ari - "6 a.m."

WCR: It's been while between your first release, 85th and Nowhere, and the new EP, mal a' propos. For those who don't know you, what have you been up to?

Well, mostly I have been hanging out at the spa.

No really, after the release of 85th and Nowhere I had a nice surprise which was that the record was attracting a lot of attention in the U.K., so I came up with a plan to explore the possibilities of what I could make of this exciting news. Sadly, in the end, my plan could not be executed. The result was very costly, not just in terms of money, but in every way. The time I spent on this plan was gone. The hopes and dreams for this idea of mine went out the window as well, so during this time I was keeping everything I could going while coming up with some new dreams - interim ones if you will.

At the time I had left Florida - where I had lived for a few years, played shows and recorded 85th - to pursue this particular idea of mine. When the plan did not work out I didn't want to go back to Florida. I spent time in Chicago, Athens and Atlanta, and while these were nice cities and I made new friends and contacts, I wasn't loving being there. I had very little money and I wasn't exactly in the greatest mood to boot. One night I got lost on my way to Atlanta. Every street there is named the same thing and it was late so I gave up and slept in my car in the parking lot of a hotel. As I fell asleep I tried to place myself back in suburbia - where I grew up - for some comforting thoughts of when life was “easier," but all I could wonder was "how could this happen?". I was surprised I had failed to do what I set out to do and was at a complete and total loss. I can tell you it did beat the one night I spent in a tree-house with a madman in Athens. But that's another interview.

So how did you finally end up in Nashville?

A poet friend of mine had urged me to go to Nashville and I shot his idea down every time. While I was still in Atlanta I called my friend up and told him I wasn't getting anywhere there. Once again he brought up Nashville. Since my ideas, thus far, had not been very good ones I decided to at least explore his idea. I decided to post on Nashville's Craigslist asking how people liked Nashville and what people's thoughts were about going there, particularly if they didn't play country music. I ended up getting back some really nice responses. One of them was from a little known band. I proposed that they be my back-up band and that I would book shows for them in return. So, when I arrived in Nashville I had a band before I even had anywhere to live which was fine by me. I think I placed my ad on a Tuesday and by Sunday I was gone.

How has everything been working out there since?

It's been a lot of work, but in general this was a smart move. With all due respect to the amazing venues here I refer to Nashville as “one big rehearsal space.” I'd venture to say that I am certainly on the fringe of the scene here and I have nothing whatsoever to do with Music Row and The Bluebird Cafe, but in many respects I think it's the best thing for me. My outlook and reach for what I am doing and my vision for what I want extend well beyond a single city- even “Music City.” I've long since parted ways with that original band I had here and just worked to improve things every step of the way. I cried the day I dropped my masters for the new EP in the mail to be sent off for duplication and packaging. There have been a lot of barriers resulting in built-up emotion leading up to this moment. People often ask me where I am from and I simply say "all over" and hope they drop it. If they don't and they are really interested, then I know I have just made a new friend.

Nashville is a great place in that there is a large pool of musicians to choose from, it's in a decent location as far as touring and when you play a "local" show you are probably playing at one of the top venues in the Southeast, if not the world. And you could probably have a drink with Jack White one way or the other, but these days I don't get out much. When I do, though!

It's interesting that, as you mentioned before, 85th got quite a bit of attention in the U.K. Why do you think it worked out like that?

I think there is an acceptance of more off the beaten path artists and a larger disdain there for pop than we have here, generally speaking. So much of my influences and what I personally love to listen to comes from the U.K. so in that way it makes sense. I am guessing there is an aesthetic to what I do that seems to resonate with Brits. London really is the cultural center of the world and I was, and still am, very flattered by the response. If I moved there I wouldn't take on a phony accent. though. That's really silly when people do that.

Is there any one review or comment you received for 85th that particularly stands out?

One of my favorite tokens from that time period is a copy of a book written by Chris Dawes, an author and former journo for Melody Maker which is now NME. The book Rat Scabies and The Holy Grail was about Chris's adventures with the former drummer for The Damned wherein they went looking for the grail. When I opened the copy of the book he sent there was a note from Chris wishing me well and a note from Rat that said "To Michele, the best musician I have ever heard.” Naturally it's not a true statement, but I value the sentiment enough that no one is allowed to borrow my book!

Wow, that's pretty awesome. No wonder that one stands out. Moving on to the new EP, you decided to title it mal a' propos, a French term that means “out of place.” Why?

85th had a clear and definite theme. The songs tell a whole story thanks to the inspiration at hand. Mal a' propos had a different evolution because my life was different. The writing for it began and then a series of different adventures ensued. When the dust finally began to settle I was hard pressed to tie things together. I looked at my life, the songs for this new record and the ups and downs to getting it made. The songs, the stories behind them and the girl who wrote them all seemed a little bit out of place. Finding the term "mal a' propos" itself was a bit of a fluke. I was having a meeting with photographer Richard Call about the record's photo shoot and we stumbled across the term online in a very happy accident. So I should give Richard credit for finding it. But I immediately fell in love with the word and knew I had my title.

Let's talk about some of the individual songs. The EP starts off with “6 a.m.,” which builds up slowly and then bursts into a very cool, almost rock-disco number. Is that the plan you had for it all along?

It started off as a really bad folk song as many songs do when written on an acoustic guitar. Naturally it wasn't my intention to leave it that way and it never got performed in its original state. That was one of those songs where I wasn't sure where it was going until I had a full band working on it. Then I knew it was headed to the disco. The idea for the little rant there before the last verse was not mine. I've since moved, but my neighbor at my first place in Nashville, Greg Urbaitis, was one of the original members of The Queers (another nice little perk about being in Nashville). I would bring my rough versions to him and, in fact, he did lend his thoughts on arrangements to the mal a' propos songs. He suggested that space in “6 a.m.” needed a little something so I wrote the “rant” you hear.

You don't hear a lot of spoken word bits in songs anymore. I'm glad you went for it.

There might be a reason for that! I get the idea I generally do a lot of things people don't do. Thank you, though, of course.

Do you have a favorite off the EP?

I don't actually, but I do think that "Atom Bombs" turned out very nicely. I've test run the songs on a handful of people and with the feedback from the producer and engineer I am finding people have different favorites. This is good news to me because maybe that means there isn't just one good song on there.

That song, “Atom Bombs,” is very relatable, which of course is one of the keys to great music. "Sometimes my head explodes like atom bombs." Amen to that. I find "Don't Go" to be a very cool tune because it's the sort of straightforward, immediately catchy three-minute pop/rock tune with no gimmicks or pretense, and you don't hear that from a lot of indie or alternative acts now. How did that song come about?

Thank you. When I first started making music I made myself a promise to be real and to be honest with myself. I didn't want to make music that lacked substance, and that did not mean every song had to be lyrical genius or that if I did not write as well as Elvis Costello that I was not a songwriter.

“Don't Go” was started one night in a popular West Nashville bar on the proverbial cocktail napkin. I was there one quiet night and was dismayed that no one was talking with me, not that I cared particularly. But it struck me as odd , perhaps sad, that nobody was talking to one another. The thought came to mind that they could be missing out on someone or something important or, at best, interesting. I took the few lines I had written and applied them to my personal circumstances at the time. The lines that begin," Is there a light at the end of this path?" not only sum up that one experience, but generally how I have felt for some time about a handful of things, and if there is some tie-in for mal a'propos with my life, that's probably it. I think the answer to that line is "yes.” I remember when I was a kid reading this brochure for Disney World with a quote that said "getting there is half the fun.” I think of that sometimes and I hope I will think that looking back.

So when planning this tour what made you you choose to play Chicago?

Because you live there so it's an excuse to see you. Actually, you've been a great friend and I really do want to give people the chance to come to a live show who have been there for me all along, particular those who never went away in the time between 85th and mal a' propos. In some ways it was the venue itself. Cal's and I have been “MySpace friends” for some time and I just think it looks like a cool little dive bar that would be fun to play. Plus Chicago is a big city and I am likely to fare better in a big city than a small town. My luck in small towns is not so great. I played a show in a small town near Nashville and I think people were mad they couldn't hear their Nickelback songs on the jukebox. At one point I was being so badly ignored that I started reciting the lines to a commercial I memorized when I was a kid. I don't think they noticed. I don't think they would have noticed if I took my clothes off and lit myself on fire. Potentially one day I will.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Show preview: King Sparrow support Meat Puppets 11/12 at Schubas

WCR regulars might know by now that indie-garage rock trio King Sparrow is one of our favorite Chicago-based bands. We did an introductory Q&A with singer and guitarist Eric Georgevich sortly after they came onto the scene and highlighted them as one of the best emerging bands of 2008, and are always excited to hear about what they've been up to. The trio is playing Schubas this Thursday, November 12 as one of two supporting acts for the Meat Puppets - who are in town for a three-night stint at the club - so if you're going to the show you'll want to be sure to arrive early to catch the band's opening set (they hit the stage around 9:45).

To get a taste of King Sparrow before the show, check out their excellent debut EP, Derailer, five songs of hard driving rock and roll that's edgy and raw without sacrificing melody and accessibility. You can get it via all the usual suspects, including CD Baby, iTunes, Amazon MP3 and emusic. The band has also been cool enough to let WCR readers grab a new track, "Good and Plenty," that's not yet available anywhere else. It's damn good and you can download it below.

Download MP3: King Sparrow - "Good and Plenty"

Also, look for a recently-filmed music video for the Derailer track "Forest" in the coming weeks. Here's a sneak preview:

King Sparrow at Schubas (supporting the Meat Puppets)

Thursday, November 12, 2009
Also with Black Wine
9 p.m., 21 and over
$16 advance, $18 at door (buy tickets)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Lissie - 'Why You Runnin'' EP

First the bad news: It appears that tickets are pretty much gone for this Thursday night's show at the Auditorium Theatre featuring Ray LaMontagne and Rock Island-raised singer-songwriter Lissie (at the time of writing there were still a few single seats left on Ticketmaster).

Now the better news: Lissie releases her introductory EP, Why You Runnin', this Tuesday on Fat Possum Records, and it's so good that it warrants a post anyway.

The first thing you notice about Why You Runnin' is Lissie's voice. It's, in one word, enchanting. Her vocals walk the line between old school, wide-eyed country songstress and 60s girl-pop siren and pull off the combination beautifully. After that you notice the strength of the songs themselves. EP opener "Little Lovin'" leaves an immediate impression, starting off as warmly inviting Americana-pop before building into a foot-stomping chant. The stately "Oh Mississippi" could easily pass for some century-old American folk standard given a modern reading by the singer if one didn't know it were an original. "Everywhere I Go" sounds like what might have happened if The Ronettes had been born out of the rural Midwest, while closing track "Here Before" soars with stark beauty. Probably the biggest stunner, though, is Lissie's cover of the Hank Williams country classic "Wedding Bells." This version does what any great cover song should do - respect the original while taking it in a new and interesting direction - and Lissie's hauntingly sad reading of the song couldn't be more effective.

The singer is no longer based in Rock Island - she currently lives in California - but hopefully she won't forget to make frequent return trips to her native Midwest as her recognition continues to grow. And based on the strength of her EP, it's bound to grow fast.

Download MP3: Lissie - "Little Lovin'"

For more free downloads, check out Lissie's Daytrotter session.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

EP review: The Yearbooks - 'Have a Great Summer'

Photo by Eddie O'Keefe

Indie five piece The Yearbooks introduced themselves earlier this year with a single track, "Season of Love," a helping of summery pop strong enough to pinpoint them as an up-and-coming band to watch. Now, the Chicagoans have officially released the song alongside five others in the form of their debut EP, Have a Great Summer. "Season of Love" was solid on its own, but the six song collection is downright impressive. Finding a middle ground between old school power pop and modern day, Strokes-inspired indie rock, The Yearbooks never miss a beat on Have a Great Summer, with song after song that anyone even remotely into catchy guitar pop would be hard pressed not to love. None of the songs fall short, but particularly infectious standouts include opener "She Did It With Her Eyes," "Safe in LA" (which features possibly the strongest chorus on the disc) and the nostalgic "Time Machine." In addition to the melodies, the spiky guitar work of Eric Hehr and Billy Friel stand out, as do the clear, clean vocals of Sars Flannery (although the singer does occasionally veer into throaty, Julian Casablancas-esque territory, particularly on "Stranger of the Night"). There are more than a few indie bands currently basing their sound on a similar formula, but very few are doing it half as good as The Yearbooks have prove they can on their debut.

Have a Great Summer is available for download via iTunes and Amazon MP3.

The band also recently filmed an appropriately summery music video for "Season of Love," viewable below.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Chicago bands, want to open for Mark Ronson on New Year's Eve?

If you're a Chicago-based musician looking to score some exposure, here's an opportunity worth getting on your radar.

Beck's Music Export is calling for submissions from bands in the Windy City, one of which will win the chance to open for DJ and producer Mark Ronson at the River East Art Center on New Year's Eve. The bill will also include The Virgins, The Drums and The Airborne Toxic Event.

To enter, click here and submit a track and recent photograph. Entrants also have the option of submitting a 30-second video. Through November 13, site visitors will vote to narrow down all entries to six acts, who will perform as part of the Beck's Music Export Wildcard Tour in early December. Fans will then vote for their favorite of the six, and the top vote-getter will win the New Year's Eve slot.

Tell Lollapalooza who should play in 2010

From now until November 10, Lollapalooza is asking fans to "be the booking agent" and submit the top five artists they'd like to play the fest in 2010, slated for August 6-8. There's no limitations - they're asking for suggestions that span "monster headliners to bands we’ve never even heard of -- from rock to avant-garde, indie to hip-hop, and all the sounds in between." The form also asks participants for any other suggestions, so now's the time to speak up here. Don't forget to include your favorite Chicago-based indie acts, who could always use a stronger presence on the bill.

What do you think? Who do you most want to see in the 2010 lineup?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Q&A: Verona Red

Chicago-based rockers Verona Red will headline Beat Kitchen this Friday, November 6 (more info and tickets here), and to help get readers revved up for the show, lead singer and guitarist Chris Balzer answered a few questions for WCR about the band's sound and time on the scene so far. Check out the Q&A below, as well as two downloads courtesy of Verona Red from their debut full-length, Side Effects. Also, be sure to listen to the band on Fearless Radio this Wednesday, November 4 (details here).

Download mp3: Verona Red - "All We Ever Had"

Download mp3: Verona Red - "Marjorie"

You guys have been on the scene for quite a while now. How did the band first come together and how has it evolved since then?

Well, Mike Panagakis (drummer) and I started playing music together back in high school in Lake Zurich. Verona Red actually started though when we both moved back to Chicago after our first year of college. We hadn’t stopped playing music, we just weren’t able to play together during that time, so we were excited to start something new. When we first started we were calling ourselves Ursa and the music was more folk-based and we were much more cautious with our writing. We called our sound an ”acousti-funkleration of independence.” Now, we call our sound rock and roll, and our music is based on the good times we want you to have while listening to it.

Tell us about the recording of your debut full-length, Side Effects. What did you set out to get across in the music and how did the process go?

Side Effects was influenced by a few things: a break up, a new guitar amp, and a lot of hermaphrodite porn. We walked into the studio with the overall goal of bringing the energy of our live show to the album. We believe rock and roll is about more than making a good rock album; it’s about bringing a good show and a good time to all your fans. We can tell the folks at our shows enjoy the music from all the dancing and groping, which is great because we put a lot of work into making our live show the balls. We think this album reflects that.

The record definitely has a diverse, eclectic sound. It's tough to pin down a specific style. How would you describe your music to someone unfamiliar with it?

Rock and roll. That’s it really. Maybe a type of in-your-face dance-rock. We blend several genres on this record, but that’s the beauty of rock and roll. You can do that and if everyone’s having fun it works, we don’t need to apply a million different sub-genres to it. You can hear some blues, some dance, and some swing sound in our music, but really it’s just rock and roll.

If you could get people who haven't yet heard your music to check out just one of your songs, which would it be and why?

While our album pulls from a lot of different sounds and styles, I think "All We Ever Had" does a good job of combining bits and pieces of all these sounds into one song. If you like "All We Ever Had," you’ll like a few of our other songs too, and probably one of those other songs even more. It’s a good starter song because it captures a lot of what you hear across the album – a sing-a-long chorus, climaxing rock and roll, a beat you can dance to, and some general badassness.

What sets Verona Red apart from other bands from Chicago?

Our insatiable addiction to gay animal clown porn and the size of our balls. Both of these things obviously impact our live show, which is another differentiating factor. Even virgin Verona Red crowds will be singing and dancing at our shows – our music’s upbeat and the lyrics are catchy, so it mixes well with drunks looking for fun. And 87% of people who attend will get laid the night of our show. That’s a number we’re proud of. Rock and roll.

By now you've played shows at a long list of venues. Which gig stands out as the most memorable so far?

Well, our record release party last November certainly made us feel the most like rock stars. There were a shit ton of people there and everyone was really drunk and happy to see us. We played every song on the album that night, and it was warmly received by over 400 people. It was so fun; we’ll never forget that show. We’ll also never forget the show we played for a deaf persons support group. I’m still confused at why live music was the entertainment choice for the evening, but we made sure to all be a little extra animated that night.

As a Chicago-based band who has played many out-of-state shows, what do you think makes the Chicago music scene unique?

Chicago is like a blessing in disguise for musicians who travel – it’s the ultimate testing ground for the Midwest, which puts us at an advantage when we go out of town. Our Chicago crowds are more demanding than other crowds. If you’re an original act, they start the night with arms crossed or hands in pockets. It’s our job to get them dancing, and we usually do, but there is always a “prove yourself” kind of vibe that’s present before we get on stage. In other parts of the Midwest, people are ready to dance the minute they walk in the door. I suspect the advantage we get as a touring band from Chicago is similar to the Kenyan marathon runners who train in the hills.

What can people expect from a Verona Red show?

A fucking great time! Dancing, drinking, third grade humor, gay animal clown porn, diapers, grinding, humping, insults to your mother, a song dedicated to your mother, and ROCK AND name a few things.

What's on tap for the band next? Any plans to record new material?

We’re doing the first show with our new bassist, John Bottrell, at Beat Kitchen in Chicago on Friday Nov. 6. After that we’re heading to the Vollrath Tavern in Indianapolis to play a show with The Receiver from Columbus, which we’re really excited about. There will be a few more shows after that before playing back in Chicago again. As far as new recordings go, we definitely have some ideas we’re excited about. We’re working on remixing some of the material on Side Effects and we’ve been tossing around some ideas for new songs, too. Right now I’m intrigued by the idea of doing a concept album, so maybe some of our next songs will be written from the perspective of the gay animal clowns in the porn. I’m not sure, but I’ll keep you updated.

How can people find out more?

Buy us a drink or check us out online.