Dye It Blonde
Two years ago Smith Westerns were underage basement-show unknowns, but now they're the darlings of everyone from Pitchfork honcho Ryan Schreiber to art star Ryan McGinley. They've landed slots at sweet festivals like Pitchfork and Primavera and a spot on the roster of Fat Possum Records, home to other buzzy garage bands like Sonny & the Sunsets and Wavves. And they did it without spending much time at all in the trenches of the local circuit. Add to this a November Tribune feature where Smith Westerns complained that "there's not much going" in Chicago and just generally sounded punchably hubristic, and you've got a lot of folks around town not-so-secretly hoping that the band's sophomore album will be a train wreck. They've explained in interviews that they're ditching the scuzz-glam sound of their self-titled HoZac debut in favor of something more heavily Britpop influenced, which has only made such an outcome seem more likely.
The bad news, at least for Team Schadenfreude, is that Dye It Blonde is even better than Smith Westerns. Turns out that by "90s Britpop" the band didn't mean the lad rock of Blur and Oasis, which really would've been a terrible fit for them—they seem to be going for something closer to Pulp, namely a tasteful balance of garage and glam dashed with a bit of new-wave electronics. In other words, a more refined version of what they were already doing. The first album sounded like a bunch of kids stumbling on a stash of killer riffs while figuring out how to put a chorus to a verse, but the new one is incredibly assured—when Smith Westerns were pillaging Marc Bolan's guitar tones, they apparently picked up a good deal of his crafty pop smarts too. The album was produced by Chris Coady—who's proved he has an amazing ear with his engineering and mixing work on richly textured records by the likes of TV on the Radio and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—and it's guaranteed to be one of the best-sounding albums from a Chicago band this year, if not one of the best, period.
Kiss Kiss Kiss mix tape
For the past year there's been an awful lot of house music in pop radio—pretty much every hot-fire single, from Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" to Usher's "OMG," has used a four-on-the-floor beat that could've come straight out of a Farley "Jackmaster" Funk mix. It's nice that mainstream American audiences are starting to show some love to a style that's arguably had a bigger impact on global music culture than anything since hip-hop, but most of the divas singing on these house-based tracks don't sound any more committed to the style than Britney Spears sounds committed to dubstep on "Hold It Against Me." Kid Sister, on the other hand, has both feet planted on the dance floor. Even on her 2009 debut album, Ultraviolet—clearly a shot at Hot 100 crossover—she rapped to a fair number of body-jacking beats. And on this giveaway mix tape, assembled by Fool's Gold cofounder Nick Catchdubs, she plays straight to the fans who want club bangers instead of pop songs. Kiss Kiss Kiss dips into everything from dubstep to hip-hop, but it really takes off when she indulges her inner roller-rink booty shaker on tracks like Green Velvet's 2009 single "Everybody Wants," which pairs vintage Chicago house with a Kid Sister rap, and "Lookout Weekend," which features vocal duo Nina Sky and harks back to the booming 80s electro-pop subgenre known as freestyle.
Approaching the Energy Field
Part of being an Eternals fan is learning to go along for the ride—you never have any clue what insane route they'll take or where they'll end up. In their hands a thick piece of rockers reggae might morph suddenly into something like a punk deconstruction of a DJ Premiere beat, and if you tried to map out all the genres they've squeezed into their albums so far, you'd end up with a dense tangle fit for a conspiracy theorist's wall. After the Eternals' latest drummer, Tim Mulvenna, quit as a full-time member, core duo Damon Locks and Wayne Montana decided to shift to a primarily electronic setup for Approaching the Energy Field, their first recording as a two-piece—and in the process they did away with routes and maps entirely. Because they lean more heavily on samplers now, there's more hip-hop in their music, as you might expect. But that technology also opens up access to a theoretically infinite range of styles—and if that's the strange journey the Eternals mean to undertake now, the manic, massive Bollywood horns holding up "I Let the Telephone Ring" are a doozy of a first step.
White Noise Bed
Nice Night for a Knife Fight
The hard thing about reviving southern-California-style 70s psychedelic pop is that it was thoroughly picked over even before Wilco inspired a bazillion other bands to pillage it. Part of the reason Santah are so successful with this style—drawing a considerable amount of local blog attention, even though Chicago seems to generate this sort of music spontaneously—is that they tap into the sound's darker undercurrents, injecting a bit of heartbreak that tangles interestingly with the mellow vibe. Mannered, intricate pop constructions like "No Other Women" are impressive, but the band is most memorable when it goes widescreen on "Overgrown" and blows up that darkness to an epic Springsteen scale.
The hard thing about reviving 90s power pop isn't necessarily that the style was pretty much done to death in the 70s, though it certainly was—it's more that the fans who got really into it during the 90s revival were, well, pretty much dorks. People into the goth, grunge, and rave scenes seem to have ended up working for fashionable magazines and styling fashionable photo shoots, which lends those revivals extra cultural currency, but nostalgia for the 90s hasn't lifted the power-pop boat just yet. But the obsessives out there who are still proud that they scoured record stores for Teenage Fanclub and Matthew Sweet CD singles back in the day (those import-only B sides were crucial) will find a lot to love in Nice Night for a Knife Fight. Part of the trick in power pop is knowing when to stop writing, and Otter Petter know how to stay out of the way of their songs—they keep the production lean and let the abundant hooks and sugar-buzz energy speak for themselves. It's perfect that tape decks are coming back in style, because tracks like "Tiny Words" and "Tie Your Hands" belong on a 90-minute cassette mix from one crushed-out pop geek to another.