Writin', Rockin', and Politics
As rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim DeRogatis seldom minces words: his record and show reviews are merciless (unless he's writing about punk or prog rock), and his barbed interviews allow rock stars to unwittingly take themselves down a notch or two. But DeRogatis is also a rock 'n' roll drummer: he once played in a Wire cover band called the Ex-Lion Tamers, and in 2000 he assembled a garage band of local music writers to perform at the publication party for his biography of rock critic Lester Bangs. The writer's latest project, the political punk band Vortis, has scored coverage in the Reader, New City, and the Chicago Tribune and signed a deal with local label Thick Records. This Friday the band will celebrate the release of its first full-length CD, Take the System Down, with a show at the Hideout.
I have to give DeRogatis credit for inviting the same criticism he loves to dish out, and judging from the album he's a solid drummer, fueling the quartet's jackhammer grooves with precision and style. But unless I'm missing some elaborately constructed and meticulously maintained joke, Vortis is among the most boring and didactic punk bands I've ever heard. Despite superficial touches of funk ("White Skin Black Heart," complete with an uncredited Public Enemy sample) and two-beat country ("Shade Tree Mechanic"), Take the System Down is an exercise in generic three-chord stomp, with boilerplate metallic riffing by guitarist G-Haad and bassist Johnny Los.
Most of the blame falls to Vortis's other celebrated member: vocalist Mike Weinstein, a professor of political philosophy at Purdue University (and husband to heavy-metal sociologist Deena Weinstein). His nasal, tuneless, and arrhythmic yammering races upward into a piercing squeal during his more excited moments, and his clunky lyrics sound like the journal entries of a college freshman with a new subscription to the Nation. "The lyrics are for the purpose of 'agitainment,'" says Weinstein, his coinage a variation on the "edutainment" favored by KRS-One in the late 80s. "They're meant to provoke raucous contempt. It's meant to give people vitality, a kind of devilish joy in opposition, to make people feel that they're not victims. I want people to feel, if only for a moment, that they have some energy of their own that's not being stolen by the system."
According to DeRogatis, Vortis is interested in raising questions about the world, and Weinstein applauds anyone who shakes up the status quo, whether on the left or the right. On "Unabomber" he cheers, "Unabomber, Unabomber, fight fight fight / Unabomber, Unabomber, dy-no-mite!" His essay on the band's Web page (www.angelfire.com/indie/vortis/vortisfaq.html) takes great pains to place the band in the context of vorticism, a British art movement of the early 20th century, but his professorial stance is undercut by songs like "Fellow Traveler," in which he declares, "We face a deadly foe, a mean fuckin' ho / It's a beast with many names and it has a thousand shames / Capitalism, globalism, high technology / Whichever way you say it, it's a piece of scatology!"
Weinstein calls himself an "individualist anarchist. I really don't judge other people for the decisions they make." That's good news for DeRogatis, who recently cooperated with the system enough to turn over incriminating sex tapes of R. Kelly to the Chicago Police Department. The tapes, sent to DeRogatis after the Sun-Times published an expose of Kelly, provided the basis for child pornography charges filed against Kelly in June. Asked about an ethical situation that's considerably more complex than his lyrics, Weinstein replies, "I might not have done the same thing, but I wouldn't ask everybody in the band to have a uniform position on these things." So much for raucous contempt.
In her native Australia, Tania Bowers played bass for the punk-pop band SPDFGH and later crafted fragile, introspective torch songs for her solo project, Sunday. In March 1999 she moved to Chicago to marry musician and recording engineer Casey Rice, and since then her whispery voice has turned up on records by cornetist Rob Mazurek, experimental rockers Joan of Arc, and pop perfectionist Archer Prewitt. A few months ago Bowers released her first U.S. solo record under the name Via Tania: the six-song Dream of... (Chocolate Industries) frames her smoldering vocals with minimal piano chords, flickering electronic textures, muted electric guitar by Jeff Parker, and brushed drums by John Herndon. Her songs rarely deviate from ballad tempo, and though her voice doesn't always complete the sumptuous melodic shapes she tries to draw, one can easily connect the dots. A pair of moody electronic remixes by While and Prefuse 73 forecast the richer sound on her full-length album, which has just been completed and will be released by Chocolate Industries early next year. Bowers hopes to play a few local shows before she and Rice move to Australia in October.
Rubberoom, Chicago's fiercest and most underrated hip-hop group, burned itself out about two years ago, but rising from the ashes comes Opus, the new project of producers Mr. Echoes, aka Fanum (Kevin Johnson) and Isle of Weight (Aaron Smith). On their recent debut EP O.O.O. (Ozone Music) the duo continue to craft tracks of harrowing austerity and toughness, joined by a mix of veteran Chicago MCs (Earatik Statik, Thawfor) and underground heavies (Atmosphere's Slug, Mike Ladd, and I Self Divine of the Micranots). The beats are lean and hard, and the drifting atmospheric textures consistently evoke feelings of paranoia and dread. First Contact, a full-length CD with guest spots by Aesop Rock and Rubberoom's Lumba, is due in October.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Brian Ulrich.