Chicago Sound

Chicago friend Eric to the right, blonde who’s *not* Leah to the left; Cap’n Jazz in the back

It’s an awful picture, but it captures pretty accurately the way I saw the scene through tear-blurred eyes. I had waited 16 long years! And after a few failed attempts, I finally found myself standing before the Brothers Kinsella, Davey Bohlen, Victor Villareal, and Sam Zurick on their home turf, in Chicago.

I discovered Cap’n Jazz when I started college in 1994, a year before the band’s demise yet too late to see them play live. Having missed out on the ur-band itself, I settled for — and was really into, actually — its offspring: Joan of Arc, American Football, the Promise Ring, Owen, Owls, Make Believe, even the many, many superfluous Kinsella projects. When my brother-in-law, Patrick (who made an impulsive one-night trip this past January to catch their “secret” reunion show at the Bottom Lounge; I wish I had been so impulsive), told us of their rumored reunion late last year, I wasn’t exactly stoked. How could a bunch of thirty-something-year-olds manage to do the disheveled, kinetic, rhythmically unpredictable, adorably off-key thing that charmed my socks off back in the early 90s?

I don’t know how, but they did it. The Wicker Park show was totally awesome (as have been all of their reunion shows, as far as I can tell). Totally worth the wait. Worth suffering the indignity, the week before, of being denied entrance to their show at Brooklyn Bowl, while undeserving (I jest!) 16-year-olds, who weren’t even alive during the “Chicago sound” halcyon days, got in.

The idea of a “geographic sound” dawned on me shortly after I started working at Blue Train, an independent music store in State College, PA, at 18, and initiated a weekly habit of trading CDs. My then-boyfriend was on the university’s independent concert committee, which often brought in “caravans” of bands from the same region, who were traveling together between DC, New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. I discovered that my musical tastes were concentrating in particular geographic areas: Glasgow (Mogwai, Arab Strap), Chapel Hill (Superchunk & Merge Records), DC (Fugazi and almost all things Dischord), Austin (Mineral, Stars of the Lid, and, later on, all those “big sky” bands), Louisville (Slint, Rodan), and, most of all, Chicago (Tortoise, Shellac, all the Kinsellas’ projects). (These cities, with the exceptions of Chapel Hill and DC — and with the addition of Brooklyn and Reykjavík — still give rise to the music I like most.)

Back then, not having ventured much past the East Coast, I started to wonder about the connection between place and sound. Why did particular cities generate such vibrant music scenes? And why did particular scenes generate such distinctive “sounds”? What was it about Glasgow that engendered such melancholy? Why all the clippedness and exasperation in DC? Why all the alternating angularity and fluidity in Chicago?

August 27, 1994, via Metro
August 27, 1994, via Metro 

Will Straw, Alan O’Connor and Holly Kruse have written about the political, economic, and cultural factors that together mold and sustain a music scene (for more “music scenes” literature, see my “City and Sound” syllabus). Marc Faris addresses the defining characteristics of “that Chicago sound” of the early to mid-90s: loyalty to a “workingman persona,” the centrality of Steve Albini and his commitment to “material authenticity” (my term) in recording, an emphasis on rhythm over melody and harmony, and a distinctive musical “visual culture” that is, too, tied to material authenticity.”

I guess I’m looking for something more, though — something more than human actors, aesthetic choices, ideological loyalties. Perhaps because Chicago feels so materially distinctive to me — so solid, so securely rooted to the earth, so broad-shouldered (if you’ll pardon the cliche) and, simultaneously, towering (Wright and Mies, lake water and steel) — I want to think that this physicality somehow informs the city’s culture, including its music. Tony Mitchell writes, in an article I unfortunately can’t recommend, of Sigur Rós’s connection to Iceland: their music “could be said to express sonically both the isolation of their Icelandic location and to induce a feeling of hermetic isolation in the listener through the climactic and melodic intensity of their sound.” I like this idea. True or not, it’s a satisfying thought. Whether or not there’s a there there, in Mitchell’s argument, I like that he finds a “there” in Sigur Rós’s sound.

I still can’t explain how the spatial-to-sonic translation works, but I know I hear Chicago in Thrill Jockey and Drag City. And I especially enjoyed hearing that “there” — the ur-“Chicago Sound” of the 90s — there, in Wicker Park, on a lovely Saturday night, with two long-time friends.

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