Chris Mills's late-90s output on Sugar Free was basically alt-country twang burnished by the occasional neosoul horn riff; last year he made an audacious leap, stylistically and professionally, by starting his own label, Power Pop Records, and releasing The Silver Line--a self-produced, self-financed album that allowed him, he says, to explore artistic directions that the more traditional-minded Sugar Free folks had been leery of. Mills's lyrics are as uncompromisingly dark as ever (except on the treacly title tune), but the pop elements in the music, submerged until now, have sprung to the surface, and at times the result is unsettling: on "Suicide Note," the harrowing death rattle of a beaten-down busker, Sgt. Pepper-like horn charts and a jaunty second-line beat merely dilute the desperation. But the New Agey arrangement of "I Could Not Stand to See You"--feathery fingerpicking overlaid with gently chiming piano chords and a wafting cello line--savagely mocks the narrator's tormented spiritual writhings ("Do not walk with me, walk with God / For I could not stand to see you burn"), and on "Diamond," the plaint of a barroom Quixote ("While I'm sweeping the ashes / From your burnt-out eyes...I just want to see them shine"), Mills's self-pitying whine reveals the narcissism at the heart of his character's hero fantasies, as cloying chamber-pop strings swirl behind him. Not all is darkness at the edge of the trailer park, though: "Dry Eye" is a tough-minded but spirited dash of street-savant poetry that borrows gleefully from Dylan and his disciples (an acoustic guitar riff lifted from "Desolation Row," a burbling organ and labored ascending chord pattern from Blonde on Blonde, a twangified guitar break a la 60s-vintage Byrds), and "Floorboards" lays Springsteen-esque musings on fate and mortality atop a chugging white-line-fever country-rock cadence that Mills and his mates fire out with such abandon that the song transcends its own cliches. Sunday, September 7, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.