Locust Music Hosts an Eclectic Saturday Showcase

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Starless & Bible Black
  • Starless & Bible Black
I haven’t had time to fully digest it, but Shape of the Shape, the new second album by British trio Starless & Bible Black, sure seems like a winner. And since the band is playing Saturday night at the Empty Bottle as part of a showcase presented by local label Locust Music, I don’t think I should wait to post about the band till after I’ve listened to the new album as thoroughly as I think I ought to. I remember liking the group’s self-titled 2006 debut, also on Locust, but it certainly didn’t impress me right out of the gate like Shape of the Shape did. Now I feel stupid for not giving the debut more of my attention when it came out.

Starless & Bible Black have a lot going for them, but two big things stand out. First, French expat Hélène Gautier is a terrific singer, with a voice that’s sweet, ethereal, precise, and throaty. That may seem like a self-contradictory list, but her delivery of these catchy, elegant melodies is sufficiently complex that all those qualities can coexist in her style; she draws on traditional British folk and 70s singer-songwriter fare in equal measure, and the results sound like neither. Second, her resourceful partners, guitarist Peter Philipson and keyboardist Raz Ullah, provide a rich backdrop for her gorgeous voice, filling the spaces between exquisite guitar arpeggios, spindly riffs, brief and fluid solo passages, and the occasional power chord with analog-synth parts that alternate from spaced-out to warmly gurgling to 70s noodly—growing up in the 70s, Ullah was apparently spellbound by Pink Floyd, Jean Michel Jarre, and the music of Dr. Who, and you can hear it. And none of these elements outweighs any other, so meticulous is the trio’s beautiful blend. The record features a quintet and has drumming on every track—along with plenty of overdubbing—so I’m guessing that Saturday’s performance, the band’s first in Chicago, will be relatively stripped down and gentle.

Stephen Titra, back in the day
  • Stephen Titra, back in the day
Saturday’s bill also features the reappearance of O.W.L., an ambitious but long-forgotten musical project that its founder, Stephen Titra, abandoned in the early 70s. A former member of obscure 60s Chicago bands like Rhythm’s Children and Mountain Bus, Titra formed O.W.L. around 1968 with a couple of pals, and they gigged sporadically at spots like No Exit and the Earl of Old Town—though according to Titra, the venues wanted short, simple songs, not the elaborate epics he’d been developing. An acquaintance hooked the group up with some off-peak studio time, and the resulting 20-track demo impressed Universal Studios head Murray Allen, who agreed to finance the recording of an album. The deal was that if the record scored distribution, Titra would get reimbursed. Titra enlisted a number of local musicians and spent six months recording the album, then started shopping it around in early 1972. Twenty test pressings were made, packaged in lithographs of Titra’s art—he wanted to bundle the record with an oversize book of his pen-and-ink drawings—but by the following year it had become clear that, despite a few near misses, no one was going to release the album.

Titra soon moved on and put O.W.L. behind him—until the day a couple years ago when he got a call from Locust owner Dawson Prater, who’d stumbled across one of those 20 test pressings at a Brown Elephant thrift store on Western. Prater eventually released an O.W.L. album called Of Wondrous Legends in 2008. The music is a bit overdone for my tastes; the gauzy horn and string arrangements split the difference between baroque and Ren fair (there’s even a song called “Renaissance & Rococo”), and the whole production gives off a strong whiff of Middle Earth fantasia. But Titra has a lovely voice and his melodies are gorgeous. I’m particularly fond of the vibes and marimba from Al Keeler, whose contributions suggest that Titra was probably listening to plenty of Tim Buckley at the time—Buckley’s sound owed much to vibist Dave Friedman. I’m waiting for confirmation from Prater, but I’m pretty sure that this is the first O.W.L. performance in nearly four decades.

Also on the bill: Minnesota banjo improviser Paul Metzger and Italian electronic composer and conceptualist Alessandro Bosetti, who’s in town as part of the Outer Ear Festival of Sound.

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