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Subtle Charms

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Subtle Charms

In August 1999--a month before her band Town and Country was set to record an album for Thrill Jockey--bassist Liz Payne severed the end of her right index finger and shattered the end of her middle one with a table saw. Doctors were able to reconstruct her digits, but they expected her rehabilitation to take at least six months. "I'm still getting my mobility back," says Payne, who builds furniture for a living. "It will probably never get back to normal. The top joints are kind of frozen."

It looked like the quartet, which plays a uniquely folksy strain of instrumental minimalism that falls somewhere between Morton Feldman and John Fahey, would have to go dormant for up to a year. Given that its debut, Town and Country, had come out in 1998, that meant a problematically long lag between recordings. But Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards suggested that the group record an EP of music that would make the best of Payne's physical limitations. The result was this spring's three-song CD Decoration Day, on which she plays snare drum, acoustic guitar, and one-handed piano. "My ring finger and pinkie have become a lot more dexterous," she jokes.

As it turns out, being short a couple fingers was nothing a minimalist band couldn't overcome: the band's brand-new full-length, It All Has to Do With It--in stores Tuesday--is their best work yet. Josh Abrams, who also plays bass, says the long incubation period led to greater nuance and detail in the performances. "We were a much more mature group when we made the album than we would have been last year," adds guitarist Ben Vida.

Vida, Abrams, Payne--all trained musicians--and self-taught harmonium player Jim Dorling met through the Myopic Books free-improv scene, and in 1997 they started Town and Country with the intent of improvising in such a way that their performances would resemble Feldman's abstract, slowly developing compositions. They tried this for a while using electric guitars and prerecorded tape, but they inevitably found themselves jamming. Then one day Abrams introduced a written piece, "So That I May Come Back," which called for an all-acoustic lineup--himself and Payne on upright bass, Vida on acoustic guitar, and Dorling on harmonium. The format stuck.

"When we first started using improvisation we'd try to play for a stretch of 10 or 20 minutes and it was hard for us," Vida says. But when Abrams brought in his composition, "all of a sudden we were working on a song, and we were comfortable with a 15-minute duration. It took some structure for us to pull it off."

On the first record, released by the small Boxmedia label, the group favored delicate drone-based pieces that morphed almost imperceptibly. But It All Has to Do With It is both more structurally sophisticated and more melodic. The music is for the most part genteel, with occasional passages of mild dissonance, and it can be lulling at times, but part of its loveliness is in the way it changes shape and direction one voice at a time. There are more instruments--Payne, who's back on bass, also plays piano, celesta, and guitar, Vida adds trumpet and accordion, Abrams adds mbira and vibes, and everybody rings a few bells--and the various voices interact like clock gears, one element pulling the next along. "We're trying to write music that can sweep over you, but music where you can also notice everything that happens," says Abrams.

Appreciation of these subtleties requires patience on the listener's part, and the group has been lucky enough to get it from most Chicago audiences, at rock clubs like the Empty Bottle as well as experimental venues like HotHouse. But this week they embark on a major U.S. tour with popular labelmates the Sea and Cake, and they've been preparing to deal with potentially less receptive crowds.

"We've become more aware of practical things when playing live," says Abrams. "Because we've added more instruments it sometimes takes longer between each number, and when you're playing for people who aren't used to some of the elements in the music they sometimes think a song's over just because things get quiet. We've been trying to make what's going on onstage really translate to an audience. At a certain point we had to decide if we were going to keep playing loft spaces or just say 'fuck it' and pretend that we're a rock band. We've been pretty surprised that we've gotten as far with it as we have."

Town and Country will test out its set at a record-release party for It All Has to Do With It on Saturday night at the Hideout.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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