When people talk about Chicago's history of fiercely independent record labels, they usually bring up Touch and Go, Drag City, and Thrill Jockey. It's too bad that Kranky Records, which celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2013, doesn't come to mind more often, because it certainly belongs in that company—it's proved just as reliable, creative, and uncompromising as any of those better-known imprints.
Joel Leoschke and Bruce Adams launched Kranky in 1993 to release Prazision, the debut from Virginia instrumental trio Labradford, who went on to be a cornerstone of the label's early output. (Adams sold his share of the company in 2005, and now runs the label Flingco Sound System.) Over the years Kranky has often tested the boundaries of rock—you might say it was an early proponent of postrock, if you don't mind how dumb that word is, but I prefer to simply describe the label as focusing on sonic explorers. Its impressive catalog now contains almost 200 titles, including music by Low, Disappears, Deerhunter, Charalambides, Tim Hecker, and Keith Fullerton Whitman.
Kranky is celebrating its 20th with a four-night festival in December (Thu 12/12 at the Empty Bottle, Fri 12/13 and Sat 12/14 at Constellation, and Sun 12/15 at Lincoln Hall). Many details have yet to be settled, but confirmed headliners include Stars of the Lid, Tim Hecker, Grouper, and Disappears.
I asked Leoschke to say a little something about the five Kranky releases by Chicago artists that he considers the most unjustly overlooked, and not only did he oblige me, he also put together a Soundcloud playlist with a track from each one. That playlist is below, followed by Leoschke's thoughts on the five albums in question:
Pan-American, Quiet City Though originally from Richmond, Virginia, where he was a founding member of the incomparable Labradford, Mark Nelson has been living in Chicago for the past 15 years. His recordings under the Pan-American name are all exceptional deep-listening works of a skeletal and understated nature, recorded using live instrumentation. All his albums need more attention, but Quiet City from 2004 is an elegant masterpiece.
James Plotkin and Brent Gutzeit, Mosquito Dream Chicagoan Brent Gutzeit has collaborated with so many people in this burg that I don't know the half of it. But his greatest feat is the Mosquito Dream album, a 1999 duo release with James Plotkin composed by recording, destructing, and reconstructing Plotkin's guitar and Gutzeit's handmade instruments (which include an 18-string bass strung with piano wire). It's a tropical fever dream of minimalist, atmospheric tones and drone.
Bird Show, Bird Show Ben Vida lived and worked here before moving to New York City a few years ago. He has conspired with numerous individuals and groups, perhaps most notably as a member of Town & Country. But where he really shines is in his work under the name Bird Show. The most fully realized of his Kranky albums is the "untitled" third, a 2008 release that features Chicagoans Greg Davis, Robert A.A. Lowe, Adam Vida, and Michael Zerang. It's truly cross-cultural fourth-world music, featuring myriad hand-percussion instruments.
Implodes, Black Earth This long-simmering quartet has finally cooked up two albums of immersive, guitar-heavy, dense-and-hazy psychedelic rawk (for lack of a better word). Implodes is unique on the local scene, as likely to reference 70s gothic Italian rock as 90s New Zealand indie. Drowned in Sound summed up their 2011 debut thusly: "Black Earth isn't a record you listen to, it's a hole you fall into." Couldn't have put it better myself.
Ken Camden, Lethargy & Repercussion Ken Camden is another Chicago transplant, in this case from Pittsburgh. He plays beautifully schizophrenic lead guitar in Implodes, but his solo material, released under his own name, is a different cuppa. I am loath to reference other artists when describing music, but I'll make an exception here. If you can imagine Robert Fripp teaming up with Cluster circa 1975, you might be getting close to the sound on 2010's Lethargy & Repercussion.