Music » Record Roundup

Six of the month's best Chicago releases in rock, rap, and dance

Reviews of new music by Flesh Panthers, J Fernandez, Lil Durk, the Singleman Affair, T.B. Arthur, and the Valenteens



Flesh Panthers
NGC 2632
(Tall Pat/Dumpster Tapes)

When punk four-piece Flesh Panthers dropped their first two releases last year—a seven-inch on Tall Pat and a self-titled cassette on Dumpster Tapes—they sounded like a group of kids looking for the kind of fun that's hard to tell from trouble. And in case the ragtag, deranged shrieks and squeals of the band's guitars didn't make it obvious enough, front man Ryan Zombotron doubled down with his lyrics: on "Bleed Black Leather" from Flesh Panthers, he half screams, "I just wanna stay high forever."

Zombotron says those recordings are faithful to Flesh Panthers' anything-can-happen live sets, but that for their full-length debut the band wanted to try something different. They went into the studio intending to mess with their sound, and they had a field day with noise boxes and the tape head of an old reel-to-reel player, among other gadgets. NGC 2632 puts a psychedelic spin on their messy punk punches: the woozy "Teethe" cleans up some of the band's sonic muck and dials down the pace, but keeps their noisy euphoria intact.

Zombotron wrote the new album's lyrics by drawing inspiration from a list of about 100 words and phrases—"flies," "city living," and "linear energy," to name a few. "There's an insect theme in the album, but there's also a mysticism that has to do with the planets and stars and space," he says. Those themes inspired the album's title, which is an astronomical-­catalog designation for the Beehive Cluster in the constellation Cancer (the ancient Chinese called it "Exhalation of Corpses"). Zombotron hopes NGC 2632 is the first of many albums for Flesh Panthers: "Hopefully I can keep on putting out records and people won't tell me to shut up."

Flesh Panthers play an afternoon show at the East Room on Sat 6/6 with Mama and headliners White Mystery.


J Fernandez
Many Levels of Laughter
(Joyful Noise)

Indie rocker Justin Fernandez recorded his debut album, Many Levels of Laughter, in his Humboldt Park apartment two years ago, but the version he's releasing now through Joyful Noise is much changed from its original form. "The first time I recorded it super quickly," he says. "I just wanted to get it done." Fernandez wasn't happy with the recordings at first, though that changed as he tweaked them in the ensuing months. "I came back and cleaned it up a bit and edited it down a lot," he says. "I think I'm a lot happier with it this time."

Fernandez started working on music under the J Fernandez name a few years ago in order to teach himself home recording. After Jake Acosta of Famous Laughs asked him for something to release on Teen River, Acosta's cassette label, Fernandez recorded six songs in a couple weeks—the lo-fi Olympic Village came out in February 2012. He didn't have such a firm grasp on Pro Tools then, but his ear for mood makes up for it. "If you listen to everything from the beginning, I feel like it's getting better," he says. "I still have a lot to learn, for sure."

The final version of Many Levels of Laughter glows with lived-in warmth—even with the level of polish Fernandez achieved in the editing process, it evokes the intimate coziness of other great bedroom projects. On "Melting Down" and "Between the Channels" Fernandez's sweet, somber vocals are a few hairs louder than a whisper, but they come through clearly over gently ascending synths, driving bass, and the occasional fit of feedback. He carefully combines elements of sunny 60s pop-rock, hypnotic Kraut­rock, and wispy folk into an assured, gentle sound.

J Fernandez opens the sold-out Unknown Mortal Orchestra show on Sat 6/6 at Lincoln Hall.


Lil Durk
Remember My Name
(Def Jam)

Spend enough time meandering through Chicago with your ears open, and you're likely to hear the deluxe sounds of Lil Durk's "Like Me" pouring out of somebody's car windows. It's the second single from the Englewood MC's full-length studio debut, Remember My Name, and it's primed for crossover success. Producers Boi-1da and Vinylz rein in drill's tank-assault force and frigid mood for a track that glides with smooth, sleek menace like a black Jaguar XJ in the night. Durk raps about the jet-set life and the city's murder rate with a hint of Auto-Tune in his voice, and Chicago R&B hit maker Jeremih sings the hook, lavishing another layer of gold plate on the song with every drawn-out syllable.

Throughout Remember My Name, Lil Durk works the same alchemy that makes "Like Me" so strong, taming drill's tectonic ferociousness with Top 40 pop and R&B. The 22-year-old MC struck his deal with Def Jam when drill catapulted out of Chicago's south side in 2012. Three solo mixtapes later, Durk is pushing a sound that transcends the general audience's notions of drill—the term seems permanently anchored to Chief Keef's furious "I Don't Like." Remember My Name moves with a more graceful swagger: Lil Durk raps about the terrible nearness of violent death, but his solemn, heartfelt performances on "Ghetto" and "Higher" are equal parts beauty and threat.

The video for "Like Me" ends by superimposing on the screen the names of two murdered members of Durk's Only the Family crew—Nuski and Chino, aka Durk's manager Uchenna Agina, who was shot and killed in March. "It still be hard, but I can't let my guard down," Durk says of Chino's death. "I just hold my head up."


The Singleman Affair
The End of the Affair
(Cardboard Sangria/Strange Weather)

Dan Schneider launched psych-folk project the Singleman Affair with just a guitar, sitar, a little percussion, and a four-track recorder. He's since pulled other musicians into his orbit, and after releasing the band's second album, 2011's Silhouettes at Dawn, he gathered his whole band in the studio and tracked the new The End of the Affair with everybody in the same room. "It's more aggressive, it's darker, louder, because of recording as a band instead of recording by myself," says Schneider. "I felt that there was a new energy to everything."

On The End of the Affair Schneider and his bandmates—drummer Adam Vida, bassist Sam Wagster, keyboardist Jacob Smith, and guitarist Gary Pyskacek—play like they're doing a live show, and as loud as it can get, they leave plenty of room for tenderness. On "Repetitive Motion" they seesaw from delicate, sun-kissed country twang to sudden bursts of percussion, and on "Be This Way" they balance Technicolor keys and blasts of wah-wah guitar with driving acoustic strumming. "I love the risk involved when you're recording with four or five musicians all at once," Schneider says. "There's definitely blemishes where it's not perfect, but it has its own identity."

Schneider says the uplifting "Gray Hairs" benefits especially from the necessary imperfections of that technique; at times his vulnerable-sounding vocals are almost swallowed up by the band's slowly building swells. "Gray Hairs" ties in with the album's recurring themes: growing older, assessing your place in the world, and "being really sick of the continuous bullshit of life," as Schneider puts it. "You're playing music for 20 years and you're wondering, 'What does it all mean?'" He turns 40 in August, but with any luck he won't stop asking those questions—or playing music.

The Singleman Affair headlines a show with the Joshua Abrams Natural Information Society and Shaina Hoffman on Sat 6/13 at the Hideout.


T.B. Arthur
Dubs From the DAT

In the fall Berlin electronic-music shop and distributor Hard Wax started selling 12-inch EPs by an unknown techno producer named T.B. Arthur. The covers are blank, and the center labels include only the artist's name, the words "test pressing," and a phone number with a 312 area code. T.B. Arthur supposedly recorded these acid-techno tracks in Chicago in the 90s, and the best evidence is on the LPs Hard Wax bought last year from someone claiming to represent Arthur—the shop told Pitchfork that the runout groove on the LPs includes an inscription for Metropolis Mastering Company, a defunct north-side service that handled vinyl for much of Chicago's electronic scene in the 90s.

Little White Earbuds editor in chief and Argot Records founder Steve Mizek investigated T.B. Arthur for the online magazine XLR8R and left a voice mail at the number on the labels. A week later, he received a "strange" e-mail with an audio attachment. "It was a short piece of a track with a pitched-down voice on top of it," Mizek says. "The person said that T.B. Arthur was not ready to discuss the details of who he was, but that he was thrilled and surprised by the reaction to the first three records." Mizek continued the correspondence, eventually abandoning the XLR8R story so he could release Dubs From the DAT on Argot. It would be T.B. Arthur's first release with an outside label.

The EP's three tracks are dub versions of earlier Arthur material, and they're pulled from his old DAT tapes (hence the title). They tend toward a cavernous sound, with a deep bass pulse bumping throughout—the electronic grit of acid-techno percussion rears its head on the B side's second track, "First Thought," seeping in and out of the shadowy mix. The EP keeps an easy groove going throughout—I'm less concerned with finding out who T.B. Arthur really is than I am with hearing more of this vibe.


The Valenteens
Fuzzed Out Tone for the Painfully Alone
(Hip Kid/Ice Age)

Ice Age Records founder Kris Di Benedetto got the idea to start a noise-pop group after his friend Vince Aguilar sent him a YouTube video of Henry's Dress, a short-lived Albuquerque alternative band that flamed out in 1996. "I never heard anything like it before, and I said, 'Yo, we should just rip this off,'" Di Benedetto says. "Then we didn't do that. But we kind of did."

With Di Benedetto behind the kit, Aguilar singing and playing guitar, and Kyle King on bass, the Valenteens formed in 2013. Di Benedetto had been saving that band name, and he thought it'd fit with the trio's messy, hearts-on-their-sleeves songs: "We're a bunch of emotionally stunted people," he says.

After two 2013 cassingles and last year's sharp Fun in the Sun With the Valenteens seven-inch, they've dropped their first full-length, Fuzzed Out Tone for the Painfully Alone—a not-so-subtle reference to Owen Ashworth's defunct lo-fi project, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. The Valenteens careen from furious hardcore blats to ebullient pop-rock sunbursts, and Aguilar's charmingly glum vocals push and pull against the music's mood swings.

Aguilar's lyrics aren't always intelligible, given the band's volume, but they tend to be about brief romantic encounters, near misses, unrequited crushes, and bitterness at exes. When the Valenteens dial back their feedback to a soft purr on "Fuzzed Out Tone . . . ," Aguilar follows suit, so that the vocals sound like they're coming from the basement next door. But no matter how hard it is to hear the words, the woozy lovesickness and heartache come through loud and clear.  v

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