Local indies rocked 2000

January 5, 2001


Once again, the mail bin is filled to overflowing with recent indie recordings by
Chicago rockers. Here's a look at some of the discs that made noise on the local
scene in 2000, marking the auteurs as artists to watch in 2001.

(A second installment of more do-it-yourself releases will be forthcoming in the next
few weeks.)

Tom Daily, "The Burlington Northern" (Thick) **** 1/2

The second album by Tom Daily--a k a Tom Counihan, veteran of the Smoking
Popes and Not Rebecca--marks the singer-songwriter as the local answer to the
indie-rock darlings in the Elephant 6 collective, a group of bands dedicated to
updating the psychedelic-pop traditions of the late '60s and early '70s for the new
millennium. Daily's enigmatic, buzzing soundscapes are reminiscent of Neutral Milk
Hotel, but this isn't to say that his work is derivative. Songs such as "The Kids Are
Not Alright," "Oh My" and "Reese Witherspoon" (a strange but touching homage) are
much too odd for that. At the same time, these weird vignettes are as catchy as
vintage bubble gum hits. Think the Banana Splits meet Syd Barrett, with a touch of
Brian Eno on the side. And turn it up.

*Yakuza, "Amount to Nothing" (www.yakuzadojo.com) **** 1/2

As angry and hard-rocking as any of the much-vaunted "Cookie Monster" bands
dominating alternative-rock radio (your Papa Roaches, your Disturbeds, et. al.),
Yakuza betters that hollow genre by bringing an impressive musicianship to its stew,
as well as showing a lyrical sophistication that extends far beyond the usual "woe is
angst-ridden me" whining. Songs such as "Sweetest Day" and "Turkish Goggles"
incorporate elements of jazz and world beat as well as hard-core punk and thrash
metal. Though all of the players excel, the MVP is probably frontman Bruce Lamont,
formerly of the Dyslexic Apaches, who adds some killer "Fun House" sax as well as
scary vocal snarling. Given half the chance, this band could rule the alt-rock
universe--and elevate its standards considerably.

*Starball, four-song sampler ***

Tamar Berk and her glam-pop trio have been kicking around town since 1996,
distinguishing themselves from the ranks of other Veruca Salt wannabes by virtue of
Berk's powerful vocals, a flair for endearing melodies and a wry, lyrical wit. Berk
slipped me this sampler as an appetizer for an upcoming release, but it's worth
mentioning because these four songs have more hooks than a tackle box. Cool
automotive heartbreak metaphor: "We are a two-car relationship/You drive your
way, and I'm right behind you . . . No matter how I drive, you'll always pass me by."

*The Prescriptions, "Why We Don't Rent to Women" (Johanns Face) * ** 1/2

This trio has been around long enough now to make its members' pedigrees
irrelevant, though most reviews still start by mentioning them. It might be because the
band's stark but tuneful minimalism and the slippery, Everywoman nature of Sarah
Contorer's vocals present a challenge to adjective-starved reviewers. Although the
sharp feminist critiques of the lyrics provide plenty of food for thought, they tend to
be buried behind Contorer's guitar and Laura Ann Masura's pummeling drums. All in
all, it's a powerful mix, but it's a hard one to analyze in print. Did I mention that these
are former members of the Smoothies and Motorhome?

*Cotton Pony, "Boys in the Attic" (Menace Music) ****

Listed among the thank-yous on this seven-song debut are the Shaggs, the infamous
New England outsider artists who were either the worst band in rock history or the
most "authentic" (and possibly both). Kate Burns and Ellen Philips share that band's
dedicated primitivism--this to say, they can barely play their instruments--but they do
it with considerable style and wit. Every song here is named for an ex-boyfriend
whose shortcomings and assets are lasciviously profiled over the sketchy guitar and
drums. The mix of sexy crooning and emasculating sarcasm is a unique one sure to
endear this combo to riot grrrls and their boy toys alike--providing the men have a
sense of humor. Inspirational lyric: "Wanna put you under glass/Smoke you like some
jungle hash/ You're as cool as Johnny Cash/Please come to my birthday bash."

*Haegers Bend, "Atomic Dreamland" (Round Table) ****

This quartet is clearly inspired by the English "shoegazer" bands of the early '90s
(Ride, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive), and they update that swirling, psychedelic
sound with a mix of well-crafted tunefulness ("Open Door," "Vicious Circle") and
trippy, free-form improvisation ("Analog vs. Digital"). These dozen tunes comprise a
promising debut and a welcome addition to a small but growing Chicago space-rock

*Teenage Frames, "Kingsize Sessions" (Star Time) *** 1/2

The latest EP from this modish power-pop quartet features one of the giants of the
genre guesting on bass, Ted Ansani of Material Issue. It also boasts four infectious
originals--my faves are "Happy Birthday" and "The Lemon Drop," an inspired rewrite
of the influential ska hit "Lollipop"--plus a hell-bent-for-leather cover of the MC5's
"High School." It all speeds by in a frantic 12-minute blur, but it's as hard to resist as
a sugar buzz on Halloween.

*Gayle Ritt, "Somewhere to Turn" (Vaut Records) ***

Drawing on skills she mastered at her day job as a publicist, Gayle Ritt was
ubiquitous through much of 2000, but she backed up her relentless self-promotion
with constant performing. Local bands that whine about the lack of media attention
they receive should work one-tenth as hard. Ritt's gutsy voice is an impressive
instrument, and the ambition of her lyrics is admirable, but the album is slick and
overproduced, and hence a little bit soulless. It would be nice to hear Ritt letting loose
in a much less polished setting and turning her literate, lyrical eye toward a less tired
subject than faithless boyfriends--either that, or taking a cue from Cotton Pony and
upping the humor quotient.

*The Eternals, "The Eternals" (DeSoto) *** 1/2

These genre-hopping Chicago art-rockers make an impressive debut with the nine
songs on this self-titled release for one of the leading labels in the emo movement.
The band's lyrics share some similarities with that genre--the group strives for poetry,
mixing the personal and the political--but the music by Trenchmouth veterans Damon
Locks and Wayne Montana and Tom Ze supporting player Dan Fliegel is a much
more experimental mix of dub reggae, trip-hop and modern progressive rock. The
clear influence here is Tortoise. Like that group, the Eternals can be a bit precious
and self-consciously arty at times, as on the labored "Phase 3 of a Never Ending
Transformation." At other points, the mad scientist experiments succeed wildly, as on
the opening pastiche of "Billions of People."