Monday, October 11, 2010

Record review: Project Film - 'Chicago'

By Sasha Geffen

It's not an untold story: Converse-clad indie kids start band, record poppy lo-fi, come to the big city in search of fame and success and possibly groupies. But Project Film and their debut album Chicago emerge from a more detailed history. Minneapolis natives Sam McAllister and Megan Frestedt launched into Chicago's music scene not through their band, but through the label Tandem Shop Records, conceived a few years back during a conversation at a party in their home town. They've signed the acclaimed acts Mr. Bear and Levels (formerly Honest Engines) and are now pushing their longtime personal side project onto the label's center stage.

The duo's DIY ethic powers both their managerial and musical work; Tandem Shop fosters collaboration with other student artists (both McAllister and Frestedt are college seniors) in their album art and promotional materials, pushing to be involved in the greater Chicago artistic community while also remaining self-reliant. As such, McAllister recorded every instrument on Chicago himself in his studio apartment in the city.

The result is a charming, dreamy debut full of layers and turns. “Minneapolis” eases in slow with a hazy ambiance that's soon cut into by clean acoustic guitar and spatters of drums. Almost immediately, the track evokes that distance between its eponymous city and the album's. The 400 miles are tangible and heavy, like we're watching them glide by through the glass of a train window. “Minneapolis far and near, will your buildings please appear?” asks McAllister of his home, crafting a sweet (but never cloying) nostalgia.

The LP picks up its feet with “Motionless,” with Frestedt's chiming backup vocals pushing the tone into a sunnier place. What culminates is a poppy number evocative of Death Cab for Cutie in a good mood, a comparison that stretches into the album's centerpiece: the gentle “Sound Sleepers” backed against with the catchy and driving “Art School”. The latter especially highlights McAllister's grasp of song structure, as it jettisons along its hooks without leaving a dull beat.

Some softer moments, however, weaken the arc of the record and feel too much like filler. The acoustic and nearly-whispered “Kapture” stagnates like a track that could be found on any number of basement demo tapes. Instrumental “Ink” strikes an odd departure from the genre, a six-minute jam that plays out a bit like a Feel Good Lost B-side. It does feature some neat little melodies, and showcases McAllister's talent on the bass, but ultimately it's obvious that he's jamming with himself—having fun but not exactly making any breakthroughs.

As much as the DIY ethic speaks to me on principle, Chicago suggests that Project Film might benefit from something closer to a studio environment. While many a stellar recording has been etched onto four-track tapes, a certain embracing of the medium needs to accompany the writing in order for the scratchiness to work with the music and not against it. Project Film suffers from the malady of having more songwriting ambition than production values. That isn't to say that the fuzz kills the mood entirely, but McAllister seems to be writing for cleaner air. The bigger, louder, more layered numbers especially could use some tightening: “Cool Kids,” a wry ode to hipsters, plays out bright and fun, one of the album's strongest, but ends up a bit too muddy to succeed entirely.

Ultimately, Chicago accomplishes much of what it aims to. Alternately sad and sweet, lonely and fun, the album captures much of what it means to leave home base for bigger cities. When McAllister urges us in the closer track to “go, go into the sun,” it's with the bittersweet conviction of launching oneself somewhere new and terrifying and absolutely necessary. Project Film, living between the old city and the new, have delivered a work exploring nostalgia, distance and ultimately, destination.

Chicago will be released November 9, and is currently available for pre-order via Tandem Shop Records.

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