Windy City Treasures

My Chicago adventure is now a week behind me. But the musical discoveries I’ve made continue to resonate.

Half the fun of discovering this new (and sometimes old) music came from finding the record stores in the first place, which you can read about here ( And then came the leap of blind faith that was trusting my new friends Robert (from Permanent Records) and Beth (from Reckless Records) to guide me in the right musical direction after giving each of them a relatively vague description of what I was looking for. Our conversations consisted mainly of me answering “no” after being asked whether I had heard of the band in question. Lucky for me, Robert and Beth came through with flying colors!

I could waste time rehashing the adventure, or I could tell you about the music. Let’s do the latter.

Brokeback, Illinois River Valley Blues. There’s something inherently frightening about dropping the needle onto an LP by a band you’ve never heard of. I knew only two things about Brokeback: Their album’s cover art was really cool (which might be why I chose to play their record first); and they were on the Thrill Jockey label, an absolute favorite of mine. My fears were eased almost instantly by the sounds emanating from my speakers. It was a lush, atmospheric sound I found dark and haunting, yet beautiful. Brokeback sounds like the guitar-driven cousin of Tortoise, my favorite Thrill Jockey band. There is also an Americana streak in this band that makes me think of Wilco. There are a lot of musical ingredients making up a very cool sonic stew.

Wooden Shjips, Back to Land. I was struck first by this album’s cool packaging, which reminded me of LED Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. The band took things one step further by making the LP itself white. My inner cynic worried that the pretty packaging might be a distraction, preventing me from focusing on potentially bad music. But I needn’t have worried. Back to Land is a rock solid LP. It’s full of swirling bass and synthesizer sounds that would be right at home in a psychedelic 60s band. The grooves are consistently uptempo, but never overwhelming. The music works fine in the foreground or the background. I like this band so much, I bought another one of their albums on CD after returning home.

Disappears, Pre Language. This album has a punk rock attitude, but it’s not punk rock music. The songs are brief and to the point, featuring haunting vocals over great synthesizer and drum grooves. In some ways, it sounds like an album out of time, belonging next to bands like Public Image Ltd. in the mid- to late ’80s.

White Hills, Heads on Fire. This band plays aggressive space rock reminiscent of TransAm (another Thrill Jockey fave). I came to think of them as a psychedelic jam band, even if the title doesn’t completely do the music justice. Funny thing: I took very few notes while listening to this album. I think I was too busy being captivated by the sounds I was hearing.

Mako Sica, Invocation. This album strikes me as the post-rock relative of Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way. It’s music that makes great use of space. The difference between the two acts is that this album starts out ambient, and then goes indie rock on you. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. And it never loses its trance-like sense of groove.

Ono, Ono. Over the years, I’ve had occasional run-ins with the space jazz of Sun Ra. This band is a spiritual relative. I remember Robert describing it as “psychedelic gospel,” which intrigued me immediately. Maybe he was just testing me to see how far my adventurous musical spirit went. No matter, because I was in! This is the kind of music that benefits from multiple plays, because there will always be something new to discover within the musical layers.

Bitchin Bajas, Bitchin Bajas. Of all the music I bought, I struggled with this album the most. Although the struggle was relatively light, in the grand musical scheme. What I hear is an ambient, more aggressive Brian Eno-type effort, with a touch of Pink Floyd. This is one of those albums I’ll need to be in the mood for. But I’ll probably get there more often than one might think.

Jeff Parker, The Relatives. This album could be considered more of a “cheat” than a discovery, because I’ve known about Jeff Parker for years. Another Thrill Jockey man, I’ve long admired his guitar work in bands like Tortoise, Isotope 217, and Chicago Underground. I downloaded this album years ago, but an LP seemed like a great way to warm up the 21st century jazz sound I was hearing. I was right. Parker just released a new album called The New Breed. Needless to say, I’ve already ordered it.

I’m sure more than one of you is wondering how I could go to Chicago and not bring back any blues, funk, R&B, or soul. I must admit, I wondered the same thing! I’ve been told the store for that is Dusty Groove, which my daughter and I drove past without realizing it. Well, I’m due back in Chicago in October, so rest assured that Dusty Groove will be one of my very first stops when I get to town. For now, I’ll have to settle for the very scratchy Howlin’ Wolf album I did pick up.

I can already tell that my next batch of Windy City treasures will be a doozy!

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