Grand entrance

February 2, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

The band's very name hints that it is a group out of step with prevailing pop trends and harkening back to another grander time. And indeed, with their fragile but gorgeous melodies and lush orchestral-pop arrangements, the 1900s stand out as one of the most promising up-and-comers on the local music scene.

Most bands reject easy labels, but as genre classifications go, "ork-" or orchestral pop is a lot more distinctive than, say, emo, because it's more about the band's ambitions than its specific sounds. And it places the group in a proud lineage with other current purveyors such as Belle & Sebastian and the Decemberists, as well as forerunners such as the Beach Boys circa "Pet Sounds."

"When we were starting this band, we were all fans of a lot of bands that were doing this kind of sound," says bassist Charlie Ransford. "Two years ago was around the time when Brian Wilson was touring with the orchestra, and that was kind of a big thing. And we've been big fans of Belle & Sebastian for a number of years; we get compared to them a lot, but we don't really sound like them very much."

The 1900s came together from the ashes of two other local groups: Ransford played with the swirling shoegazer combo Turner Joy, and guitarist-vocalist Edward Anderson and drummer Tim Minnick were members of the more conventional pop group Forty Piece Choir. "Ed and Tim quit Forty Piece Choir around the same time Turner Joy broke up, so it just kind of worked out that we got together: We already hung out together, and we were both looking for a new band to play with," Ransford says.

"Ed kind of had the goal of putting the perfect band together, with all of his ideal people. He'd grown up with Tim and Mike [Jasinski], the keyboard player, and they were both very talented, so they were a party of it. And he was a big fan of Turner Joy, so he really wanted me to play bass with him. Then he had this idea of having strings and backup singers -- I think he kind of had this grand vision -- and that's when the girls [vocalists Jeanine O'Toole and Caroline Donovan] came in. Ed just happened to meet them through friends at a party where he'd heard them singing."

The group, with violinist Andra Kulans now on board as the newest member, made an impressive recorded debut last spring with an EP called "Plume Delivery" on Parasol Records, ranging from lavishly augmented country and folk to swirling psychedelia. "The EP kind of goes in several different directions, because we were still trying to figure out what we were going for," Ransford says. Yet the maturity of the songwriting and the sophistication of the sound on songs such as "Bring the Good Boys Home" and "Whole of the Law" belies the facts that this was still a very young group, and one that begins each complex sonic tapestry with the simplest ingredients.

"Most of the songs start out with me just strumming the acoustic guitar," Anderson says. "I'll just be sitting around, watching TV or something, and I'll come up with something and think, 'Oh, this is OK!' I'll bust out [the home recording program] GarageBand on my computer and record a demo through the littler speaker on my laptop, then think about it a little more, and maybe do a ProTools version with a drum machine. Then I'll send it out to everyone and say, 'What do you think?' And once the band begins working with it, it becomes something else entirely.

"It's pretty funny: There's one song on the new album where I just woke up in the morning and had the song kind of playing in my head, so I recorded it on my cell phone as a voice memo. Then I did the GarageBand demo; then I did the ProTools demo; then the band learned it, and then we recorded it for real and brought in an arranger for this 10-piece horn and string section. I thought, 'Wow, it would be kind of cool if we just laid out how this went from a cell phone message to all of this! It's been a heck of a journey, and it's really pretty insane!' "

The 1900s began recording their first, as yet untitled album with producer Graeme Gibson at the South Side's Clava Studio last November, and they just finished mixing it last week. Several labels have shown interest, and the group is heading to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest Music Conference in March to help build the buzz and hopefully seal a deal. Meanwhile, it will perform every Monday in February at Schubas as the latest contender in the club's monthlong series of "Practice Space" residencies.

"We wanted to have a different theme each week, doing some covers, some of our new songs and some of our old songs, so people would have something different every time," Ransford says. But no matter which 1900s you catch -- the quieter folk version; the more country one, or the trippy psychedelic rockers -- there's a good chance you'll be bragging in the future that you caught them when.

 

REASONS FOR LIVING

While we're talking about ork-pop, two of the most astounding albums the genre has produced came courtesy of classically trained trumpeter and orchestral arranger Eric Matthews, who collaborated with Richard Davies for the self-titled 1994 album by Cardinal (reissued in expanded form by Empyrean Records in 2005) and made a memorable debut as a solo artist with "It's Heavy in Here" in 1995. On his more recent releases, Matthews has shunned the lush orchestration that characterized both of those must-own discs, favoring a much more stripped-down acoustic sound closer in spirit to Nick Drake at his most Spartan, especially given the similarities in vocal styles.

On his latest album, "Foundation Sounds," issued by Empyrean last September, Matthews doesn't exactly return to full-on orchestral mode, but he gets much closer than he has at any point since "It's Heavy in Here." Entrancing tunes such as "Gold" and "When You Should Be There" start with a basic rock-band format of guitar, bass and drums, but Matthews once again adds exquisitely tasteful decoration with piano, brass and horns, performing every instrument but clarinet himself.
The lack of input from other musicians adds a certain insular quality -- they may have come to disavow their partnership, but Matthews and Davies undeniably brought the best out of one another -- but then Matthews' music has always had a quiet, solitary, "Sunday morning in a barren cabin on a lonely mountaintop" vibe, and "Foundation Sounds" once again captures that in grand style.

 

 

THE 1900S

 8 p.m. Monday plus Feb. 12, 19 and 26
 Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
 Tickets, $6
 (773) 525-2508

 

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