Behind Emotional Clouds is a 'Silver Line'


October 25, 2002


Whether he’s backing up Sally Timms, performing on his own or with the Fruit Bats, or just making the scene with a broad smile and a goofy joke, it’s easy to take Chris Mills for granted.

The singer-songwriter has been a ubiquitous presence in local alternative-country circles for years now, since he started a “cool country” radio show on WNUR while he was still in college at Northwestern, and began sneaking into Waco Brothers shows by acting as the group’s T-shirt salesman. In the years since, he’s released three CDs (1998’s “Nobody’s Favorite” and “Every Night Fight for Your Life,” and 2000’s “Kiss It Goodbye”). All of them were good, but not great.

His newest effort, “The Silver Line,” is another matter entirely.

Recorded by maxing out his credit cards and released on his own label, Powerless Pop Recorders, the 10 tunes are a leap forward in terms of songwriting and arranging, as Mills mines the depths of a pain he may or may not have experienced (“I’ve been sick for days/I’ve been coughing up blood and daisy chains,” he sings in “Sleeptalking”), while decorating his plaintive melodies with lush arrangements with horns, strings, and the always gorgeous backing vocals of chanteuse-about-town Kelly Hogan.

“I just went in with a plan this time, which was sort of a new thing for me,” Mills says with typically self-deprecating humor by phone from Dublin, where his band was on tour. “On the last record, we sort of played around with some bigger aesthetics a little bit, and I just wanted to try and take things a little farther and really work on the sound this time. Because I wasn’t doing it for a label, I didn’t feel the pressure of having to please somebody else because they were putting money into it, so I was able to take the time to really please myself, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious.”

It doesn’t, especially given the results. Clear connections can be made between “The Silver Line” and the orchestrated sounds of Wilco’s “Summer Teeth” and the Flaming Lips’ “The Soft Bulletin” (Mills has covered the latter’s “Waitin’ for a Superman”). A slightly less hip reference point would be Harry Nilsson, whom Mills lists among his favorite songwriters. Whatever the sources, “The Silver Line” is no mere indie-rock homage: It’s a statement by an artist who has finally come into his own.

“I was trying to make a good record—a record that sounded like my favorite records without really sounding like them,” Mills says. “I wanted to bring out the most in each song and sort of make a record where any track could be somebody’s favorite track. Where you give it to 10 different people, and they’ve got 10 different favorites. People are always saying, ‘Oh, you should write a hit.’ As far as I’m concerned, all I write are hits! Every song should have that attention paid to it. And I really wanted to sort of just concentrate on bringing the most out of each song.

“I feel like I know more now,” he continues. “I’ve been doing it for a while, and I’m used to being in the studio. I have more experience just sort of writing, and I have more experience figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And I definitely took my time. A couple of the songs we recut two or three times to get it right, because if it wasn’t working, I wasn’t going to stand there and try to make it work. I was willing to sort of tear it all apart and build it back up again. But that said, seven of the 10 tunes are live vocals that were cut with the band.”

Despite the intricacy of the arrangements (which were ably recorded by Brian Deck), the songs are never overwhelmed by the filigree. “Suicide Note” is a poignant tune that plays on the double meaning of the word “note” (“So play that suicide note/Let it ring out once for me”). “Everything’s Gonna Be Cool” is a prayerful expression of hope that recalls the tenor of “Pet Sounds” or “Big Star Third,” and “Dry Eye” is an irresistibly sad country-rocker that falls somewhere between Gram Parson and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde.”

So why is such a sunny guy singing all these songs of doom and gloom?

“I think this probably the most upbeat record I’ve done, really,” Mills says, laughing. “I just tend to find those themes more compelling. Nobody really gives a [care] if you’re happy. At least for me, I identify more with darker things. I need songs that are darker, even when I’m listening to stuff. If you’re on an upswing, you don’t really care what’s going on around you, because you’re doing alright. But when you’re down, you kind of want to hear something or someone or some song that lets you know you’re not the only one that’s gone through that.”

As for being taken for granted, Mills keeps things in perspective.

“I don’t know if taken for granted is the right phrase,” he says. “I just do what I do. I try and make good records, I try and play good shows, I try and write good songs. I think that’s where the alt-country association comes from, because that’s a more song-oriented genre or whatever, and I’ve always been concerned with the song over anything else. Even on this record, which is more of a pop record, it’s still very song-driven. But those are things I have no control over—taken for granted or not taken for granted.

“I think the good songs are the ones that let you know that you are not alone and that you have things in common with other people at the sort of deepest emotional resonating point. If I can put two lines together that really make me think, ‘This is something that everybody is gonna get,’ and I can do it in a way that’s intelligent, and then people [ITAL] do [ITAL] get it—well, that’s all anybody can ask for.”

Mills will front a special expanded version of his core quartet, complete with strings and horns, to celebrate the release of “The Silver Line” at 10 tomorrow night at Schubas, 3159 N. Southport. The Zincs open, and the cover is $10. Call (773) 525-2508.


Continuing a Chicago tradition, several clubs are once again hosting special Halloween shows where local indie-rockers will perform the music (and often sport the costumes) of some of their heroes.

The granddaddy of them all is the annual event at the Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee. Taking the stage starting at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Local H will perform as ZZ Top, Figdish as INXS, the Gaza Strippers as Blue Oyster Cult, Giant Step as Van Halen, Bicycle Tricycle as Meat Loaf, Monster Trux as Suicidal Tendencies, and the Last Vegas as Foghat. Tickets are $10; call (773) 489-3160.

On Halloween night at Nevin’s Live, 1450 Sherman Ave. in Evanston, the Robbie Fulks Band will be the Modern Lovers, Pearl Sweets & the Platonics will be Huey Lewis & the News, Mid-States will be New Order, the Dylan Rice Group will be David Bowie, Heather’s Damage will be Nirvana, and Eddie Carlson, Jason Narducy, Steph Turner and friends will be the Go-Go’s. Tickets are $10 and the show starts at 8; call (847) 869-0450.

The same night, the Subterranean, 2011 W. North, will host Dorian Taj and friends as the Who, the Leroy Fix as Headcase, the Good Goddamns as Johnny Cash, and Knife of Simpson with members of Bible of the Devil as Turbo Negro. The show starts at 9 and the cover is $6. That includes free hotdogs, a practice which gives this particular party its rather witty name: “Hell-O-wiener.” Call 773-278-6600.