In one sense, Cath Carroll makes some of the most confrontational alternative-rock music around. At a time when even major labels are willing to shell out cash money for the privilege of releasing some very outre sounds, you may ask, how can a musician break new ground? Carroll's method: softness, not harshness. The transplanted Briton, now a Chicagoan, purveys a soothing, percolating groove that shares some theoretical foundations with the work of the lush pop proselytizers in Scritti Politti and the Pet Shop Boys. But her music is also a farrago of curious influences: Brazilian dance pop, the Manhattan Transfer, Herb Alpert maybe, and (mostly because of Carroll's potent low-volume vocalizing) Sade. She's found a genuinely new frontier: underground MOR.
Can she pull it off? On her solo album, England Made Me, released in England on Factory, and on new songs in progress at Flat Iron Recording here, she marries that music to redolent, deliberate lyrics that range from woozily sensuous daydreams ("Watching You") to gritty urban portraits ("Beast on the Streets") to chilly romantic landscapes ("My Cold Heart") to lacerating political rants ("England Made Me"). England Made Me includes everything from Brazilian percussion tracks recorded in Sao Paulo to a lyrical kiss-off to the Stones' "Miss You": "Where are those Puerto Rican boys who are just dying to meet me?" The result is an extremely intelligent mood music. Carroll, whose almost preternaturally soft voice whispers no nonsense, makes no apologies for it: "I'm somewhat irked by the fact that it's sometimes thought that to be alternative then you have to create a certain sonic structure. In the same sense, if you want to be meaningful you have to shout a lot. Well, I can't shout a lot. Some people accuse me of being vague or not saying anything. It's possible to say a lot more without necessarily bellowing."
Carroll spent what she calls her "horrendous teenage years" in Manchester, but this was the right place and time to see firsthand the evolving careers of artists like Warsaw (later Joy Division, later New Order), Mark Smith of the Fall, and one Stephen Morrissey. She and a friend, Liz Naylor, started what's usually described as a radically vitriolic fanzine called City Fun. "We were just miserable little gits," Carroll says. "We only wrote about music because we hated it. We were very Luddite in our approach: all the best music had been made 20 years before." She and Naylor also had a band, the Gay Animals, which played a deliberately provocative antipop she describes as "bossa novas and waltzes--those were the only two settings on our drum machine." But Factory records--the house that Joy Division built--was a fan of City Fun, and English music magazines find it endlessly interesting that Carroll and Naylor had what were allegedly the first memberships to the company's Hacienda nightclub, later the center of the Happy Mondays-Stone Roses Manchester dance craze. ("I think it was that Factory was so anal about numbering everything," sighs Carroll.)
She began writing as a correspondent for the British music weekly New Musical Express, later moving to London to become a feature and review writer and the editor of its "T-Zers" gossip column. But she was playing with a band called Miaow at the same time, and finding the fruits of her double role wearying: suspicions about reviews of her recorded work in NME, savaging at the hands of competing papers. ("Melody Maker was out for my blood.") Carroll seems to have lacked the conscienceless flair for blood sport necessary to thrive in the British music press. She recalls thoughtlessly publishing an item that made fun of one musician's drug problems. "People said to me, 'How could you do that? How could you do that?' and I thought, 'How could I do that?'"
She came to Chicago in 1990, for love. It was during Big Black's last British tour that she'd first met guitarist Santiago Durango, who ended up leaving the band to go to law school and is now an attorney. Leaving England for Chicago might not have been as hard as it seems. In the title song of England Made Me--the title comes from a Graham Greene novel about middle-class life during the Depression--Carroll sings, "Every railway line around here is full of stations with no towns around them / Nothing here works and it's getting worse."
The married pair now live in a Ravenswood apartment cluttered with the detritus of their various careers. An ad in the classifieds section of a certain local alternative weekly put Carroll in touch with a talented young guitarist, singer, and songwriter named Nicholas Markos, who, along with Flat Iron owner Mark Schwarz, is helping her record her new songs, which she hopes will get her an American record deal. (The pair, along with drummer Matthew Payne and keyboard player Marcos Sueiro, will be backing her up at a show Saturday at Thurston's. She's also slated to open for the Mekons at Metro Thanksgiving eve.)
One of Carroll's biggest fans is Mark Robinson of the band Unrest, who's responsible for the Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of her on the cover of the band's Perfect Teeth. He even wrote a song called "Cath Carroll," which contains the rather provocative lines, "Santiago is going to kill me / Cath Carroll is going to take me for a ride," and mentions Naylor, Carroll's NME pseudonym (Myrna Minkoff), and the catalog number of the first Miaow release (FAC 179). "I was baffled," Carroll says of this unwanted attention, and also distrustful enough to refuse to open for the band at their recent Chicago show. But she did agree to meet the rather forward Robinson. "He's apparently quite normal," she reports, relieved.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Barreras.