There's a brief scene in Out of the Loop--Scott Petersen's new documentary on the Chicago rock scene--in which the Pulsars' Dave Trumfio offers the following words on getting signed to a major label: "We're just one of the few bands that get the lucky break, and we're really happy." Judging from his beaming smile there's no reason to doubt him. But there's also no explanation of why we should care. Unless you're an enthusiastic follower of the city's fractious music community, much of Out of the Loop--which shows Friday through next Thursday at the Chopin Theatre--will leave you scratching your head.
"It's about fame and what happens to these bands," says Petersen, 28. His first feature, Out of the Loop was recently awarded second place for best feature documentary at the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Indeed, most of the talking-head interviews, with Steve Albini and with members of Veruca Salt, Triple Fast Action, Eleventh Dream Day, and other bands, revolve around signing record deals. But by eschewing the use of a narrator and providing precious little background, the film does little to bridge such ruminations. Tedious live concert footage and goofy, unrelated anecdotes offer telling or humorous glimpses into different personalities, but the film can't decide if it wants to examine how business affects music or if it just wants to profile 11 local bands MTV-style. Aside from some astute commentary on alternative rock radio by Metro/Double Door owner Joe Shanahan, it fails to connect these bands to any larger phenomenon.
The film starts favorably enough, with the series of articles on the Chicago music scene published in Billboard in the fall of 1993. The city was dubbed "Cutting Edge's New Capital," and at first Out of the Loop promises to do for Chicago what the movie Hype! did for Seattle. Despite a certain self-righteousness, Hype! kept its focus on the way the media can destroy a strong regional scene. Out of the Loop, on the other hand, starts to ramble right out of the gate. There are a few entertaining spots. David Yow of the Jesus Lizard snipes at Albini, Wes Kidd of Triple Fast Action tells of a band mate who peed on a wall socket while sleepwalking, and Red Red Meat's Ben Massarella demonstrates his savvy as an art collector as he explains the value of a green ceramic elephant he bought at his family's truck stop. Petersen managed to conduct some decent interviews, but he doesn't seem to know what to do with them. "You're not working from a script," he says. "You dance around a bunch of issues and hope something will come of it." Unfortunately, not much does.
Full disclosure: The movie includes an interview with Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon, who singles out my review of a 1994 performance as the most "ignorant and disgusting" thing anyone has written about the band.
Fall is typically the time for blockbuster record releases, usually by aging superstars. The next few weeks will bring new albums by the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janet Jackson, and Phish (another fucking live album). These records will be competing with releases by younger bucks like Green Day, Portishead, Everclear, and the Tony Rich Project. But a spate of inspired reissues should prove far more interesting: an expansive Ray Charles box set from Rhino, most of the Yoko Ono catalog from Rykodisc, and Alan Lomax's field recordings of American folk music from Rounder.
A few weeks ago the local label Drag City reissued Tilt, the gorgeously austere Scott Walker album released in England in 1995. The American-born singer enjoyed success there in the 1960s as part of the Walker Brothers, but his popularity plummeted as a solo artist as his work grew increasingly strange and tortured. Last year's superb It's Raining Today: The Scott Walker Story (1967-70) (Razor & Tie) illustrated his early bent genius, yet little could prepare listeners for the disturbing scope of Tilt. Walker once sang with a sumptuous croon, but now his voice evokes Gregorian chant and the kind of operatic caterwauling that would have given Alban Berg wet dreams. Tilt seethes with a suffocating if beautifully wrought agony. The lyrics are elliptical and evocative, and the music employs full orchestration as well as disjointed rocklike rhythms and textures. It's safe to say you've never heard anything quite like it.
There's no question that you've heard something like the music of Liquid Liquid, the spare, early 80s New York avant-funkateers--Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel hijacked their song "Cavern" for the hip-hop classic "White Lines." Several years of expensive, fruitless court battles over Grandmaster's sampling ended up destroying Liquid Liquid, who split up in 1985. A new eponymous CD released by Grand Royal collects the combo's four long-unavailable EPs. The band's skeletal, guitarless mix of bass, percussion, and disembodied vocals wears a bit thin over an hour, but the group has profoundly influenced more experimental bands like Tortoise (whose initial instrumentation was similar) and New York's Ui (whose every move is similar).
Dusty Groove, the on-line mail-order company selling used and reissued vinyl (and some CDs) that was profiled in this column last December, is going retail. The business just left its digs in a Hyde Park basement for a new north-side location on the second floor of 1180 N. Milwaukee. Starting today, it will have limited hours (noon to 8 PM Fridays, noon to 6 PM Saturdays), though its mail-order business will remain its primary concern. Dusty Groove's phone number is 773-645-1200.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jesus Lizard's David You photo by Marty Perez; Yum-Yum's Chris Holmes photo by Scott Peterson.