Music » Music Review

The Best Local Releases of 2004

Bob Mehr's top ten, plus ten more treats that came out of the vaults this year.



New Releases


Wake Up Captain | Parasol

Whether channeling the spirit of Surf's Up-era Beach Boys ("Freakshow") and early-70s Harry Nilsson ("Good Wings") or engaging in a bit of electro-bubblegum tomfoolery ("Sweet," "Yummy"), on this audacious 17-track concept album former Wood and Triple Fast Action member Kevin Tihista shines up the well-worn cliches of singer-songwriterdom and renders them as new. His crystalline voice--close kin to Ken Stringfellow's warble--anchors a hook-laden album about heartbreak and the high seas that outstrips its excellent predecessors Don't Breathe a Word (2001) and Judo (2002).


Laced With Romance | In the Red

On this album, a pulsing hybrid of pop smarts and jittery soul that's far more inventive than orthodox garage, much of what makes the Ponys appealing is the vocals: front man Jered Gummere combines his Richard Hellisms with the cocksure charisma of Ian McCulloch and the ragged desperation of Ian Curtis. The band brazenly pilfers new-wave aesthetics and 60s girl-group riffs--check the cheeky crib of the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me" on "Fall Inn"--and yet creates its own distinctive din. Their next album, recorded with Steve Albini, is scheduled for release in the spring, though the impending departure of keyboardist-guitarist Ian Adams leaves the group's future murkier.

3. M'S

The M's | Brilliante

I probably shouldn't be recommending the M's, since my girlfriend is their publicist, but their debut album--actually a collection of three EPs--is too good to ignore. A charmed collision of the Kinks, T. Rex, and even some of Sabbath's trippier tendencies, it isn't trapped by the limitations of the standard-issue power-pop platter. All four members write and three sing; they've got choral hooks big enough to snag a marlin and songs that build to some delirious highs--like the album's centerpiece, the mini rock opera "Big Baby Bottoms"/"Break Our Bones."


In the World of Him | Touch and Go

Timms's consistently challenging, sometimes grating, but ultimately rewarding solo album is a minor masterwork, full of electronics-treated pieces that convey unease and sorrow. With goth-country reprobate Johnny Dowd coproducing and his band providing appropriately funereal backing, Timms performs songs written by men--and about men--that press the same emotional buttons as other doom-and-gloom classics like Berlin and Tonight's the Night. Thrust upon a somewhat vexed fan base expecting a sequel to her quaint 1999 country collection, it has unfortunately gone largely unappreciated.


Believe | The Movement

The bulk of the local hip-hop scene explores musically progressive, socially conscious rap, but this four-man west-side crew--Chicago Shawn, Preast, Shala, Optimyst--heartily embraces a hardcore ethos. The song titles on Believe tell the story: "Pimpaholic," "We Are the War," "So Mo Gangsta." The album is a gritty, compelling snapshot of street life and death, and when it comes to politics they thankfully forsake partisan niceties ("Fuck Democrats, fuck Republicans, I got a ballot and bullet for shadow governments"). On the album's 17 wide-ranging tracks they sample everything from Middle Eastern chants to 40s musicals, creating an inventive backdrop that underscores the power of--and bitter menace in--their rhymes.


Heron King Blues | Thrill Jockey

It's not quite the masterpiece some claim it is--that distinction goes to last year's Quicksand/Cradlesnakes--but Califone is still masterful at merging back-porch melancholy and wide-screen majesty. Tim Rutili and company wend through a foggy maze of creaking blues, spaced-out country, prog, drone, and Beefheartian funk. Though it sometimes meanders, the songs are all gorgeous.


I Bet You Say That to All the Boys | Fashion Brigade

Despite a sometimes distracting Belle & Sebastian fetish this collective (3 core members but as many as 11 onstage) transcends that obvious touchstone in its passionate, pomp-free take on Anglo orch pop. Front man Elia Einhorn makes like a midwestern Stuart Murdoch, but cofounder Matt Kerstein sounds like the spawn of Joe Strummer and Shane MacGowan; their wasted romantic tales are swathed in strings, brass, and gauzy organ.


Situation Renaissance: 1917 Edition | Birthwrite

This eight-song, 38-minute album from south-side MC, DJ, and producer Thomas Martin, aka Thaione Davis, is an ambitious, densely packed parade of garagey beats and dubby workouts that nod to a century's worth of jazz, blues, gospel, and soul. It's a compelling document of sociocultural analysis that still makes sense pumping on the dance floor or out of a car stereo.


Rawar Style | Aesthetics

Since forming in 1997, the Eternals have ambitiously merged dub, funk, reggae, postpunk, electronica, hip-hop, and avant-noise. For Rawar Style, their second full-length, they push even further, threading snippets of dialogue, found sounds, and radio transmissions through the tracks, creating a melange that feels fractured yet conceptually linked.


All the Leaves Are Gone | Locust

In a huge stylistic leap, the Children's Hour and Born Heller singer grabs an electric guitar and lays waste to her rep as a fluttery folk songbird. For her solo debut she heads up a full-blown rock record that recalls the lysergic heights of late-60s Haight-Ashbury residents Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Jefferson Airplane.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Azita, Life on the Fly (Drag City); Capital D, Insomnia (All Natural Inc.); Chin Up Chin Up, We Should Never Have Lived Like We Were Skyscrapers (Flameshovel); Greg Davis, Curling Pond Woods (Carpark); Dag Juhlin, Into the Woods (11:14); The New Black, The New Black (Thick); 90 Day Men, Panda Park (Southern); The Race, If You Can (Flameshovel); Robust, Potholes in Our Molecules (Galapagos4); Thig & DJ Chuck Sunshine, Martin Luther King Jr. Whopper With Cheese (self-released).

Reissues and Archival Releases


Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label | Numero Group

Arrow Brown, founder of the obscure Bandit label, spent a decade running his would-be entertainment empire from a ghetto commune he shared with his wife and a harem of lovers whose welfare checks funded his grand aspirations. Bandit's roster was an oddball collection of friends and family, and from 1969 to '74 the label released a string of singles whose kitchen-sink production values were over-the-top even by the era's grandiose standards. This 20-track disc, part of the "Eccentric Soul" series from fledgling Chicago label Numero Group, gathers the bulk of Bandit's official output and adds a handful of incredible a cappella rehearsal tapes. Lavishly packaged and beautifully annotated, it's an incredible work of musical scholarship on an otherwise forgotten piece of Chicago soul history.


The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend | Water

The fascinating but brief recording career of James "Baby Huey" Ramey--who died in 1970 at age 26--yielded just two singles and this LP, released in 1971. Baby Huey was the subject of last week's Meter; for more see


The Complete Barbara Acklin on Brunswick Records | Edsel

Born in Oakland and raised in Chicago, Acklin was working as a receptionist for producer Carl Davis when she began writing and recording for Brunswick in 1966, penning Jackie Wilson's comeback hit "Whispers (Gettin' Louder)" before launching a successful solo career, casting herself as a more soulful Dionne Warwick. This two-disc collection neatly packages all of Acklin's late-60s and early-70s output for the label--five albums' worth--including her 1968 signature hit, "Love Makes a Woman"; a series of sublime duets with Gene Chandler; and a clutch of non-LP singles.


Just Loving You: The Zodiac Sessions 1967-1973 | Grapevine

The British label Grapevine has dedicated an entire series to classic Chicago soul, and this trip through Ruby Andrews's back pages might be the best entry yet. Though these days she's more of a blues mama, during her six years with Ric Williams's Zodiac label she produced 15 singles and 2 LPs in a nearly unbroken streak of sweet soul perfection, from the melancholy kiss-off "Casanova (Your Playing Days Are Over)" to the furious R & B screamer "You Can Run (But You Can't Hide)." Packaged with liner notes by Chicago music historian Robert Pruter, the 28 tracks could have benefited from better mastering, but that's a niggling complaint.


Chicago Soul: Electric Blues, Funk & Soul--The New Sound of Chicago in the 1960s | Soul Jazz

Most blues purists believe that Chess Records' glory days ended after the Beatles invaded America in 1964, but this thoughtfully assembled comp is a convincing argument to the contrary--and a welcome release for those who relish late-period label masterpieces like Electric Mud. Highlighting house producers like Marshall Chess, Richard Evans, and Charles Stepney, the album's 20 tracks include strange sitar-laced soul (Rotary Connection's "Memory Band"), swing jazz (Ramsey Lewis's "Party Time"), and recondite R & B (Phil Upchurch's "The Way I Feel")--as well as uncharacteristic and overlooked singles by label mainstays Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley, and Etta James. Accompanied by a 40-page booklet filled with insightful liner notes and archival photos, Chicago Soul is a much needed historical reevaluation.


Heaven & Hell: The Very Best of the Mekons | SpinArt

After more than a quarter century the Chicago-by-way-of-Leeds art-punk collective finally gets anthologized with a two-disc set that covers everything from their raucous early material on Fast Product to the skewed roots of their recent Quarterstick releases. It skips their late-70s dalliance with major label Virgin ("Work All Week" is represented via the rerecording on this year's Punk Rock), but it's a fairly authoritative take on the Mekons' vast catalog.


Stompin' at Mother Blues | Delmark

An absolutely storming set from the late slide master and Elmore James disciple. His insistent dust-my-broom riffing, gruff vocals, and backwoods southern accent were as raw as it came, and here Hutto delivers his salty blues with in-the-red intensity. This comp of mostly unreleased tracks from 1966 (a live rehearsal at Old Town nightclub Mother Blues) and 1972 (studio outtakes from Hutto's second album, Slidewinder) has so much swagger and verve it's hard to believe the music sat on the shelf for more than 30 years.


Underfed | Sea Note

Although Fed, the would-be pop opus by Plush front man Liam Hayes, came out in Japan in 2002, this is technically the first stateside release of the material that made up his costly and nearly career-killing album. Comprising bare-bones versions of Fed tracks, Underfed is a kind of official bootleg, right down to the CD-R sleeve and typewritten track list. The album nicely complements the finished product, but it's also equally enjoyable in and of itself. Engineered by Steve Albini and Bob Weston and performed with drummer Rian Murphy and bassist Matt Lux, the songs take on completely different hues and meanings without their ornate trappings, capturing Hayes at his most intimate and subtle.


Funky Funky Chicago | Funky Delicacies

For the past few years Funky Delicacies, an imprint of New York's Tuff City label, has been documenting regional and city scenes with its "Funky Funky" series, assembling insightful historical surveys of Detroit, New Orleans, and Houston. The 16 tracks on the Chicago edition are of early- and mid-70s vintage, plundering the vaults of long forgotten labels like Stuff, Scorpio, and Mod-Art. A not-so-surprisingly consistent collection--many of the acts here worked the same turf on the south-side nightclub circuit--this CD of shoulda-been hits includes blues-tinged, horn-fueled nuggets by the Chosen Few, Eddie Houston, Jimmy Johnson & the Lucky Hearts, and the Electric Jungle, whose "Funky Funky Christmas" may be the all-time great lost holiday song.


Live | Rhino Handmade

Blues revival linchpin Paul Butterfield is in peak form on this long out-of-print concert set recorded at LA's Troubadour in 1970. Taking a cue from his hero Junior Parker, the Chicagoan formed his own big-band ensemble in 1967; three years later the group was a truly electrifying outfit, capable of delivering vivacious versions of regional blues nuggets from Texas (Freddie King's "You've Got to Love Her With a Feeling") to Memphis (Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign").

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Art Ensemble of Chicago, With Fontella Bass (Emarcy/Universal France); Cicero Blake, Here Comes the Heartache (Grapevine); Cheer Accident, Younger Than You Are Now 1981-1984 (Pravda); Coctails, Popcorn Box (Carrot Top); Donny Hathaway, These Songs for You, Live! (Rhino); Ginji James, Love Is a Merry Go Round (JVC/Victor); Psalm One, Bio Chemistry 2: Esters & Essays (Birthwrite); Shrimp Boat, Something Grand (Aum Fidelity); Various Artists, Trax Records 20th Anniversary Collection (Trax); Various Artists, Yes Indeed! Women Vocalists on United (Delmark).

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