"She's Heaven," the first song on the long-awaited White Soul album by the Chicago group Green, is a striking beginning. Lyrically, it's a trademark tale from leader Jeff Lescher, a mix of obsessive desire and rampant self-loathing: "I know she's an angel / And I know I'm a fool," he sings.
Musically, it's an ascending series of heart-stopping hooks--jumping from verse to bridge to chorus--matched each step of the way by Lescher's remarkable voice: a sexy huskiness at the song's beginning shifts into a reedy, Ray Davies-like holler on the bridge, then finally becomes a wailing, shattering falsetto for the chorus. Awash in guitars, driven with a tonsil-shaking rhythm from drummer Mark Mosher, and boosted with one of the most exciting vocal tracks you've ever heard, the song is a convincing bid for rock 'n' roll immortality.
And it's only the intro for White Soul, recorded more than a year ago and released last year overseas on the Dutch label Megadisc. Now White Soul and a new, companion EP, Bittersweet, are available here, together on CD from the sardonically named Widely Distributed Records. Taken together, the records represent the most ambitious, accomplished work by a Chicago artist at least since Cheap Trick's In Color, and maybe since Muddy Waters recorded "I Can't Be Satisfied." (Yeah, I know Cheap Trick's from Rockford; I'm generalizing.) While Lescher's personal scruffiness and do-it-yourself ethos derive in part from punk, his music is a grand amalgam of the rock, pop, and soul that made up the classic music of a generation or two's childhood. It's a redolent olio of the Beatles, the Kinks, Smokey Robinson, and the Troggs, maybe, or David Bowie. Without being imitative (a Green tendency in the past), the songs on White Soul are joyful, forward-looking structures built on a lovingly acknowledged foundation; the only other mainstream artist working in similarly hallowed ground is Prince. So while Lescher's "Monique Monique" does sound as if it was recorded just before "If I Fell" on the Beatles' Something New, at the same time, if his "Night After Night" had been on the last Prince album, critics would have creamed their jeans over it. Lescher is that good.
The man behind the record is a sideburned demi-genius whose legendary ego is leavened with a reflexive, almost pathological self-deprecation among strangers ("I can drop the record by when you're not there if you prefer"). Lescher grew up in River Forest, one of a doctor's seven kids (he's the only one frittering his life away on rock 'n' roll). He was educated in Catholic schools and in 1985 he graduated with a degree in political science from Loyola. Since then he's attempted to make his way in the world as a rock star and has seen each of his records sell in the low four figures for his trouble. "The record business is about the amount of frustration you can get yourself to absorb and not get forced out of it," Lescher says.
Green, formed in 1984, has always been a Lescher vehicle with a shifting lineup. (The current version includes bang-up drummer Mosher, bassist Clay Tomasek, and a new guitarist, Mike Jarvis, late of Milwaukee's the Blow Pops.) The band's first record, a seven-inch EP called The Name of This Band Is Green, contained the boisterous statement of intent "Gotta Get a Record Out." A first album called Green and 1987's Elaine MacKenzie followed, both manic and fun but ultimately derivative; Lescher's supple voice roams through songs that sound like a bunch of covers from the Kinks, the Pretty Things, the Hollies, the Rolling Stones, and the Faces. That in itself is fairly awe-inspiring, but in retrospect the arrangements and even the songs' themes--"She's an Addiction," for example--sound received.
White Soul and Bittersweet are striking, original departures. The former was conceived as a song cycle that follows a man's visit to purgatory: "He's trying to weigh himself in terms of his own moral conscience," says Lescher. "He's addressing a sort of God figure and trying to make a case for why he believes he should be saved rather than damned."
This baroque philosophizing is actually supported on the record, from the undercurrents of ambivalence and salvation in "She's Heaven" through the head-over-heels crunch of "Gimme Your Hands," in which the cliche of the title (a nod, among other things, to the cathartic end of Bowie's Ziggy Stardust) is transformed into the eternal imprecations of something like a devil. Lescher even linked the theme to a pair of photos for the album jacket; to his chagrin he found that the CD packaging wouldn't allow it. "I know some people think I should be living in a condo on Pluto on this subject," he says, "but I really thought it was important that our eyes be open on the front and closed on the back."
While Bittersweet will probably be overshadowed by White Soul's crystalline brilliance, it's an enterprising coda to the record. The title song is a slow and rising soul ballad, a loping, ornate showcase for some of Lescher's more extravagant vocal stylings. The song's title also serves as a convenient metaphor for both records: "I like the yin-yang thing of "bittersweet,"' he says. "It seems like the sweetness of life can get drenched in the bitterness sometimes.
"It's a pop love-song teen-anthem weepy type of thing," he says, with a typical mixture of sincerity and off-handedness. "I was trying to do a sort of Curtis Mayfield thing for pop radio in the 90s."
Neither White Soul nor Bittersweet are all seriousness: The former features a goofy tale of romantic pratfalls, "I'm Not Giving Up," and former Green bassist Ken Kurson's supersonic "My Sister Jane." And just as the CD slips to a close, Bittersweet drops in a final tour de force: "The Record Company Song," a brutal but still heavily romanticized epic, a sort of anatomy of a hit, that wheels through about four different musical genres in as many minutes:
I don't understand what went wrong with my plan:
I've paid all my dues, sir
And I misspent my youth, sir
I spent every night of my young life in a bar with loud guitars.
The singer goes with the company's advice and finds himself with a hit ("It sounds like all the shit on the radio"); but behind him, the group hollers, "Let's take rock and roll back / From the record companies / Give it back to the kids." "Now what do I do, sir?" wails Lescher. It's a hugely funny tale that could only have been written by a talented 30-year-old facing something less than immortality. ("It kills Jeff that by the time Paul McCartney was 30 he'd recorded Let It Be," says a friend.) Does Lescher worry about having turned 30? "Only in the sense that to continue to be unsuccessful might begin to look like we're flogging a dead horse," he says.
Green performs at a CD release party tonight at Cabaret Metro, 3730 N. Clark, that begins at 11:30. The Blind Venetians open. Admission is $6; call 549-0203 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.