Sharp Darts: A Century of Progress | Music Column | Chicago Reader

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Sharp Darts: A Century of Progress

The 1900s make a great leap forward with their new album.

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It's only been a year and a half since Bob Mehr profiled the 1900s in the Meter, but my, how they've grown. Back then they were a somewhat untested combo that had only been playing shows for seven months, and they were still weeks away from their debut release, the EP Plume Delivery. But they already had a knack for engineering ambitious, baroque pop structures--though they're a seven-piece, with keys and strings and boy-girl harmony vocals, their songs would sound epic and orchestral even played by a power trio. Now that early promise has been fulfilled: after a year packed with shows to promote Plume Delivery, both in Chicago and on the road, they're intimidatingly tight, and the EP's lead single, "Bring the Good Boys Home," is the closest thing to a local hit the Chicago indie scene has had in years.

When the 1900s appeared in the Meter, they expected to have put out their first LP by this spring, but Cold & Kind (Parasol) just dropped last week--Friday's show is a release party. Even if you've been following their steady evolution into a beautiful machine for the delivery of pop bliss, even if you've seen them so often you can sing along with songs they haven't recorded yet, the new album still might catch you off guard. It's actually kind of spooky how good it is. With its wealth of unforgettable hooks and its intricate, sensitively executed arrangements, it feels like a classic on first listen--it's the kind of record that seems to come from a more perfect dimension (or at least from England), not from the band next door. If the 1900s keep this up, it won't be long till the rest of the country falls for them just as hard as Chicago has.

Yet when I ask how the band has changed most in the past year, they say they have a van now. "The last batch of blogs that have come out about the record have said exactly what I was hoping they would," says guitarist Mike Jasinski, "that we took a step forward from Plume Delivery." That's about as close to gushing over the album as anybody in the band is willing to get. Mostly they talk about how much time and effort they invested in it.

"It took two days to record all the basic tracks," says songwriter Ed Anderson, who shares lead vocals with Jeanine O'Toole and Caroline Donovan, "and then seven months to do all the overdubs." The overdub sessions were preceded by months of planning and demo recordings, with the band devising a grid on a whiteboard where every box corresponded to an additional track they wanted for an arrangement. "It took forever to get all those boxes checked off," says O'Toole. By the time it was all over, though, they'd added horn parts by local improvisers like Keefe Jackson and Josh Berman, extra guitar by songwriter Devin Davis, and percussion by engineer Graeme Gibson. Quartet Parapluie, featuring 1900s string player Andra Kulans, guested on three songs.

As great as Cold & Kind is, it won't make the 1900s into stars overnight. Sure, they can pack a month's worth of weekly shows at Schubas, but outside Chicago they say they sell their CDs mostly to door guys and soundmen. So they're doing the working-band grind, making weekend jaunts around the midwest or to the east coast, driving down to Texas for SXSW, doing stints opening for other bands. (They say they genuinely enjoy spending time together--which is good, because if you cram seven people into a van and they don't get along, somebody's gonna get abandoned at a rest stop.)

All this hustle has put them in front of some of the right people: Domino Records, the UK major indie that's home to Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys, approached the band this spring at SXSW, and Atlantic Records sent reps to a Brooklyn show this summer. But the band preferred to stay with Parasol, the Urbana indie that signed them a month after their first show. "We didn't want to wait until next year to put out the record," Anderson says. "It would've been a disaster in our lives to have to wait that long. But it was getting weird, like, 'Atlantic or Parasol Records?'"

The 1900s should probably get used to that kind of weirdness--Cold & Kind is only gonna bring more of it their way.

The 1900s, the Singleman Affair, Drug Rug

Fri 10/12, 10 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401, $8

RIAA Watch

Since 2003 the Recording Industry Association of America has threatened lawsuits against tens of thousands of alleged peer-to-peer file sharers. A few high-profile suits have been dismissed and others are pending, but most people settle out of court--the RIAA typically includes a buyout price with the threat, usually three to four grand. In four years only Jammie Thomas of Brainerd, Minnesota, has actually fought the RIAA at trial. Last week she lost.

That doesn't necessarily mean it's time to uninstall Limewire. The RIAA won big in the Thomas suit--the jury awarded it $222,000 for the 24 songs at issue--but its victory may not have far-reaching implications. The presiding judge accepted the RIAA's sketchy argument that simply making copyrighted material available for sharing is a violation of copyright, even if it's never actually shared. But the case that established the "making available" argument as viable, Atlantic v. Howell, was vacated a week prior to the Thomas ruling. When Thomas appeals her case, as she surely will, that could leave the RIAA without a leg to stand on. Previously it had to prove only that she made files available, not that anyone took them.

There's also reason to believe that the recording industry may finally abandon its shotgun approach to suing alleged file sharers. So far it's targeted senior citizens, dead people, ten-year-old girls, and people who don't even own computers, and the resulting bad press hasn't helped its case. According to a story at the Ars Technica news site, Jennifer Pariser, Sony BMG's head of litigation, acknowledged during cross-examination in the Thomas proceedings that the lawsuits are essentially punitive. They certainly aren't good business: though labels have spent "millions" suing potential customers, Pariser said, they've "lost money on this program."

The industry's also losing the support of its own cash cows. There are still a few major-label artists willing to plead against P2P, but A-list defectors from the reigning business model are making more noise. Radiohead is selling its new record online as a DRM-free download, without the help of a label, and asking people to pay whatever they like--even if that's nothing. And Trent Reznor has been encouraging his fans who feel burned by artificially high CD prices to pirate his music.

The RIAA must realize its tactics aren't working. Since the group began its intimidation campaign, the population of P2P users has nearly tripled. By some estimates there are now as many as nine million on the networks at any given time. I doubt the RIAA thinks it can sue all of them without bankrupting itself--maybe it'll finally decide to swim with the current instead of digging in against it.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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