You may have been among the lucky ones who have hit upon those magical evenings at The Grill when Howe Gelb holds forth in the Red Room with a porous collection of internationalistas and assorted local musicians. If so, you've had a flavor of the kind of cross-collaborative, anything-goes spirit that's generated three treasures of the Chicago music scene--the Fruit Bats, Edith Frost and The Chicago Underground Duo. All three will appear in Tucson in the next week, and you might be tempted to pass them up, given that the Jayhawks, Centro-matic, Cracker and Lucinda Williams are already making this a bonanza month for live music. Fight that temptation.
The serendipitous tendency of skilled Chicago musicians to sit in on each others' many projects has yielded two noteworthy subgenres from that city's vaunted experimental and free jazz movements, its venerable indie-rock scene, and its dominant roots revival sound--that of Bloodshot Records' "insurgent country" stable. The Fruit Bats and Edith Frost represent what might be called the artsy, highly accessible roots pop subgenre. The Underground Duo (occasionally also Trio, Quartet or Orchestra) are avatars of the jazz wing of a popular, post-rock mood music--something like 21st-century bop, but with no superhuman intellectual rigor required. Although none of the three bands share players on tour (Frost says she's not sure she's ever even met the Duo), you will find several of the same musicians on their recorded works. These hail from--to name a few characterizing the range--Tortoise, Califone, Eleventh Dream Day, Pinetop Seven and The Boxhead Ensemble.
The Fruit Bats, Frost and the Duo, each in their own way, play accessible art music for the reasonably well adjusted. Their arrangements betray the unfettered imaginations of a gaggle of intellectual seekers who wouldn't dream of taking themselves too seriously. These projects are rarities among those heard in Tucson, presenting music that's as novel as it is enjoyable.
While sounding not quite like anyone else, the Fruit Bats (opening for The Shins this Sunday at Club Congress) can evoke thoughts of a tenor Jay Farrar singing Sparklehorse subject matter with a soupcon of Will Oldham aesthetics, some Abbey Road sonics, and a few '70s background vocals thrown in, a la late Jayhawks. The band's only release, the 2001 Echolocation, was a highly polished debut for Eric Johnson, whose regular gig is with slowcore roots stalwarts Califone. With Fruit Bats, Johnson explores his more up-tempo pop side, retaining the instrumental dominance of acoustic guitar and banjo, but stretching their sound over often exotic percussion, and coloring in with pedal steel, clarinet, organ, marimba, ukulele and found sounds as well as studio effects. The fact that the band's live performances feature almost none of that stuff underscores the inherent drama and color of the songs themselves. Listen especially for the singalongs: the Gram Parsons-y "Filthy Water" and the sugary, memorable chorus of "Dragon Ships" ("This one is it/After I quit/Can't write a love song worth shit.").
The gods of booking move in mysterious ways. Fan logic would probably have the Fruit Bats and Edith Frost on the same bill, but there's a lot to be said for being open to new things. Frost and the Chicago Underground Duo actually have formal musical connections through their respective projects with avant-garde composer Jim O'Rourke. (O'Rourke has probably never even entertained the notion of genre boundaries, having all but invented accousti-tronica. He's also recently become a full-time member of Sonic Youth.) The bands will appear together only in Phoenix and Tucson (April 24, Club Congress), offering fans the musical equivalent of an amusement park ride that can give you whiplash if you're not careful, but is a great trade-off between risk and fun.
The Duo is Chad Taylor (percussion, vibes and guitar) and Rob Mazurek (cornet, electronics and piano). They play jazz for the sheer glory of the adventure, extending their sublime chops into pristine, unexplored territory. Their sound is so fresh as to alienate jazz traditionalists, which practically makes it rock, in motivation and influence if not exactly sound. The Duo are out on the far end (and still running) of a continuum from Blue Note through Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John Zorn to ProTools-driven electronica and beyond. Mazurek likes to borrow Sun Ra's phrase, "tone science" to describe the result--the sound of breathtaking ambition charged by the adrenaline of discovery. As often as their music is exciting, though, it is also beautiful and occasionally even serene. Even The New York Times has written of them in awe-struck language, no small tribute in perhaps the only U.S. city besides Chicago where jazz music is a source of civic pride.
Of the three groups appearing this week, Edith Frost's music has unquestionably traversed the most genre boundaries. Frost's voice has an elemental quality that sounds right in any context. She could be Astrud Gilberto as easily as Liz Phair, all the while sounding endearingly normal, like the girl next door. That she's sung in so many contexts is primarily the work of her bassist, Ryan Hembry, who's worked with nearly every avant-pop group and singer-songwriter in town, and her producer, Rian Murphy. "He's the socialite," Frost jokes. Murphy has produced two of Frost's records, but has also worked with Jim O'Rourke and an early Frost hero, Will Oldham, as well as Neil Hagerty (Royal Trux), who produced her second album.
Of her own music, Frost says, "I can only play the way I play, and I can only write the kind of songs I write." Fair enough. What she plays and sings are tuneful, moderately introspective and humable mid-tempo songs that cover a range of the human condition from perplexed and slightly damaged to perplexed, good humored and fairly happy. Her earlier releases contain more of the former, while her most recent release, Wonder Wonder (Drag City), is dominated by the latter. Some of its songs are positively jaunty, and set in arrangements that have an almost circus-like feel.
The evolution of her music corresponds to that of her circumstances. She left New York in 1997 after a divorce, and moved to Chicago because that's where her label was. "When I first moved here I kept moving and moving and moving. I spent the first couple years here just battling to keep one home or one relationship all at the same time and just being in one shitty apartment after another." She's been settled now in the same apartment and relationship since 1999. So does happiness explain the three-year gap between her Telescopic (1998) and Wonder Wonder (2001)?
"This one didn't take any longer to make," Frost says. "We were in the studio about the same amount of time as the other records, but it was harder to plan because we had a lot more people involved. We did a whole lot more rehearsing." A dozen people contributed to Wonder Wonder, and recording at Steve Albini's capacious loft allowed all of them to be in the studio at once, something of a production miracle albeit a scheduling nightmare. Contributors included Archer Prewitt (Coctails), Rick Rizzo (Eleventh Dream Day), Susan Voelz (Poi Dog Pondering) and new Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, who had for years been a fixture in Frost's band. (Frost also introduced to the world erstwhile Ryan Adams guitarist and co-writer Mike Daly, now with Caitlin Cary.)
Frost will occasionally, and unapologetically, write and sing country songs. She cites "Honey Please" from Wonder Wonder. "That is just a straight up country song," she says. "I've done that with blues songs--genre studies--that's a Rian term." On her current tour, she also sings Merle Haggard's "Sing Me Back Home," which she recorded for the Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts) project The Executioner's Last Songs, a benefit disc for the Illinois Death Penalty Moratorium Project.
She winces, though, when she's characterized as a country musician, perhaps owing to her Texas upbringing. "I'm a city girl!" she protests. And her own favorite music? "All my life I've been into really, like, bad music, kind of incorrect music ... like the Shags or Florence Foster Jenkins--she was like the world's worst opera singer. I just love it; I eat it up. And people go like 'God, I don't want to hear your next record.'" Perhaps. But you can bet that everyone in town wants to play on it.