The New Decay

for those who love myusik

Friday, February 08, 2008

Via Chicago Pt. 2

Let's talk about Post-Rock;

Coined by music critic Simon Reynolds in 1994, the term post-rock was initially used as a means to describe music which used typical rock instruments to make very non-rock music. It's a meaningfully ambiguous term that can be used to describe everything from Mogwai, to Slint, to Godspeed You Black Emperor. At it's best post-rock is used to describe those groups who had a penchant for deconstructing typical rock forms, while still keeping one foot in the genre (see The For Carnation, Him, or Do Make Say Think). At it's worst, post-rock was just a cooler way for saying Prog (see that band I tend to criticize too much, even though I really like Tyondai and "Atlas").

While there were many great post-rock scenes, none were more vibrant and exciting than Chicago's. It was here where a sizable, but closely-knit group of musicians came together to form numerous musical groups that all attempted to fuse the cities strong rock-past (see Chicago blues, and groups mentioned yesterday), with it's long-time fascination with Jazz experimentation from the likes of Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The result was the creation of one of the most influential and exploratory music scenes in North America of the time. Bellow are some of my personal highlights from this scene.

Tortoise - Gamera/Cliff Dweller Society Ep (1995, Duophonic)
If you were to choose one band to be the centre-piece of the Chicago post-rock scene, Tortoise would certainly be the unanimous choice. The band captured the very essence of what post-rock meant in Chicago, creating a near-perfect blend of jazz experimentation, Steve Reich's minimalist compositions, and rock's showy and emotionally manipulative tendencies. For many "Gamera" is THE Tortoise song. Recorded by the band in it's original form (guitarist Bundy K. Brown, left soon after the recording was finished), the song begins with a simple acoustic-guitar line, that then gets manipulated for over 12 minutes, as the band adds numerous layers and textures. The result was the creation of a sound that would soon creatively get dubbed "The Tortoise sound" influencing countless acts to follow (such as Do Make Say Think and, to a lesser extent Explosions in the Sky).

The Sea and Cake - Nassau (1995, Thrill Jockey)
To this day, one of my favorite concert moments came on one cold December evening in 1999, when post-rock royalty Sam Prekop and Archer Prewitt from Chicago's The Sea and Cake came to perform solo sets at the old Liquid Lounge in Edmonton. There was only about 150 people there, most of whom all seemed to know each other. Throughout the evening one topic kept coming up; would the two come together to play the song "Parasol" from their 1995 classic album Nassau. The song was (and still is) one of my personal favorites, as it was for a majority of the crowd. The concert was amazing, as both performers seemed to be right on their game, enjoying the intimacy of the moment. However, it wasn't until the final encore that those first few appreciated notes of "Parasol" rang. The entire crowd gave a sigh of relief, as what we were all hoping for was now happening. Thinking about now still gives me goosebumps.

Tortoise - Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996, Thrill Jockey)
When you think of iconic post-rock albums some names you think of would Spiderland or Young Team. Millions Now Living would most definitely fit in with those other records. In fact, it might even take the cake. With it's minimal approach to both songwriting and production, and the introduction of Dave Pajo as a the new guitarist, Millions Now Living Will Never Die is the album Tortoise will be most remembered for, for years to come.

Jim O'rourke - Bad Timing (1997, Drag City)
A good companion to Millions Now Living, as this is pre-pop focused O'Rourke, when he was obsessed with generating fascinating sounds. Not my favorite record of his, but still a good listen.

The Sea and Cake - The Biz (1996, Thrill Jockey)
John McIntyre often gets overlooked for his drumming skills, as he has made more of a name for himself through his excellent production on albums for groups like Stereolab, Pullman, and The Chicago Underground Duo (as well as his own group Tortoise). However, on The Biz he takes center stage, playing some of the better drumbeats in his career. This was the first Sea and Cake record I bought (on Vinyl in Calgary) and thus will always be the most enjoyable for me to listen to.

Isotope 217 - The Unstable Molecule (1997, Thrill Jockey)
One of the many Jazz-based projects of trumpeter Rob Mazurek (Chicago Underground Duo, Sao Paulo Underground Duo, Exploding Star Orchestra etc ...) Isotope 217 sees him work with Tortoise rhythm section members Dan Bitney, John Herndon and Jeff Parker (who had just recently began playing with Tortoise). It's a great Tortoise off-shoot, with it's more stripped-down, jazz focused approach.

Tortoise - TNT (1998, Thrill Jockey)
For most people, Millions Now Living is the definitive Tortoise record. For myself, it's always been 1998's TNT. Jeff Parker joins the band after the departure of Dave Pajo, resulting in a more jazz-based sound (Parker is a jazz-trained guitarist). The sound is more diverse, the songs are more intricate, as the band is clearly hitting its stride. TNT is a stunning listen from start to finish, as it is easily my favorite record on this list.
Sam Prekop - Sam Prekop (1999, Thrill Jockey)
At this point in their career, The Sea and Cake had started doing away with guitar-based music, choosing to focus more on synthetic beats and sounds.  So it was fitting in 1999 when the bands front man Sam Prekop put out his bossa-infused solo debut.  With its stripped down instrumentation, and its heavy reliance on latin rhythms, the album served as a wonderful reminder of Prekops gift at both experimentation, and writing simple yet still catchy pop melodies.

Jim O'Rourke - Eureka (1999, Drag City)
Miles Davis once stated that he never wanted to be that musician who steps up to the microphone and plays something they've played before.  I think Jim O'Rourke would agree with Miles (actually, disagreeing with Miles Davis about anything relating to music is akin to an Apple employee disagreeing with Steve Jobs on marketing strategies).  After creating numerous albums that sought to assault you sonically, O'Rourke puts together a captivating collection of lush orchestral pop-tunes.  I believe it was the last record he put out before declaring Chicago 'finished', and moving to New York (which he subsequently declared 'finished' a few years later and relocated to Tokyo, which is where he currently resides).  Well he wasn't completely off.  Soon after 1999, the Chicago Post-Rock sound would become over-saturated with Tortoise and Sea and Cake clones, which ultimately made it more difficult for both bands to continue doing what they were doing (Tortoise has only put out 2 full-lengths in the last 8 years, while disbanding into various side-projects, and The Sea and Cake reinvented themselves somewhat as they started experimenting with more electronic base sounds).  Nevertheless, if Eureka was to signify the end of 'The Chicago Sound' in someways, at least it went out in style.
Anyways, I could of focused on many more groups (Pullman, Archer Prewitt, Cul De Sac, Directions in Music, Rob Mazurek's numerous groups etc ...), but these are the highlights for me.  Tomorrow I'll have some mp3's ready for you.  They were supposed to be up last week, but I've been having some computer issues.  Also, next up is Louisville Kentucky, where we'll be looking at all the different incarnations of Will Oldham and more!
Until next time ...


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