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EP Review: Minor Characters – Heal Me, Healing Times [Self-Released]

Let’s start with an introduction. If you’re not relatively familiar with Chicago’s local music scene, the band Minor Characters may not have ever registered on your radar. Their ultimate plan is world domination, but as with any band or person that ever had the drive to pick up and play an instrument, we’ve all got to start somewhere. In the case of Minor Characters, they first got together at the end of 2010 and have been working hard to pay their dues ever since. They play as many live shows as possible, and through that avenue have built up something of a cult following in Chicago’s local scene. That hard work has paid off in other ways too, which is probably why they recently placed third in The Deli Magazine’s poll of Chicago Emerging Artists for 2012. But the reach of Minor Characters does extend beyond the city of Chicago, as they’ve done a fair amount of touring out of town and will be making their way to SXSW in March to hopefully introduce themselves to crowds eager to hear what they’ve got to offer. Of course everyone is also welcome to discover them via their self-titled EP that was released in late 2011. Five tracks isn’t exactly the largest or best catalogue, but really those songs served as a great foundation upon which to build from. As the old saying goes, better quality than quantity. So that was a great start for the band, but they’re just getting warmed up. Their second EP Heal Me, Healing Times looks to expand upon what they’ve already done and showcase the great strides they’ve made in the last year or so.

It’s always interesting to see how bands describe themselves in press materials. Minor Characters say that they are influenced by 60’s folk, The Beatles and Radiohead. If you’re a music fanatic, that’s sort of like the holy trio of influences, and most artists would kill just to be mentioned in the same breath. But here’s the thing: just because you’re inspired by another band or genre doesn’t mean you have to conform to or sound like it. Sometimes it’s just nice to have that knowledge base going in, because if a band says they’re inspired by Nickelback and Creed, that might raise a red flag before you hear a single note. When it comes to Minor Characters, perhaps it’s best to say that they’re a mobius strip of different sounds that come together to form something that feels entirely familiar yet unique at the same time. For example, their guitars on a track like “Sun Trials” feel tuned to the frequency of Grizzly Bear, but the melody itself doesn’t quite have the same multi-instrumental layers or stark stoicism to make a true match. That’s not a bad thing, as the chorus soars and aches with emotion and the band makes some smart, creative choices when it comes to overall structure and lyrics. If you listen closely in the final minute of the song, a high-pitched, static drone slides into the background that nearly recalls the deflated ending of Radiohead’s “Karma Police” but in a much more subtle fashion. There’s also a few carefully picked notes in the verses of “Aurora Borealis” that bear an eerie resemblance to Radiohead’s “Jigsaw Falling Into Place,” though maybe that’s more the result of transference after reading the band’s bio. The opening title track can leave the taste of Real Estate in your mouth thanks to its lazy summer day start before getting a strong tempo infusion and becoming a rather addictive indie pop song. Between that and the heartbreaking piano ballad “Expatriates” that closes out the short set, the band’s diverse array of talents are well displayed here.

Enjoyable and compelling as the Heal Me, Healing Times EP might be, there are a couple of small issues with it that need addressing. First and foremost is the length. You get four songs and a total run time of around 17 minutes, which really passes by in a flash. You’re left wanting more, and while that’s always a good thing, it’s also frustrating because it seems like this band is ready to take the plunge and go for the full LP. There are likely reasons why they’re holding off on it, perhaps for financial reasons or to serve as a stopgap as they consider signing to a label. But beyond the EP’s brevity, there are moments on it that feel just a little restrained or held back from something greater. Right now Minor Characters are striking a precious balance between a very normalized, pop-driven world and off-the-charts experimentation. The songs are clean cut and catchy enough to satisfy large audiences, but the rather literary and expository lyrics paired with a few strange effects add just enough dissonance to give you a glimpse into a different dimension. Somewhere down the line, be it months or a year or two from now, they’re probably going to have to fully commit to which direction they want to take. One path brings mainstream success and money but little critical acclaim, while the other path is the more challenging but brings gravitas and integrity to their music. If they’re lucky and can do it right, maybe they can have both. Either way, they’re a band with a wealth of talent worthy of much bigger and better things than where they’re currently at. The Heal Me, Healing Times EP is proof of that, building upon their earlier material and setting them apart from the hundreds of other Chicago bands trying to reach that next great peak. To put it another way, Minor Characters are finally ready to step out of the background and into the spotlight.

Stream the entire Heal Me, Healing Times EP

You can buy the Heal Me, Healing Times EP from Bandcamp or iTunes starting on 2/25/13, or get a copy from them at one of their shows.

Album Review: Tame Impala – Lonerism [Modular]

There’s something incomprehensively magnetic about Tame Impala. Identifying exactly what makes the Australian band’s music so compelling is a challenge in itself, primarily because common sense says that psych-pop songs without much in the way of song structure and choruses shouldn’t go down so easily and smoothly. We’ve been trained on verse-chorus-verse, and anything else almost always falls into the “experimental” category. Then again, bands like The Flaming Lips and MGMT have achieved massive popularity while doing things their own way and going completely off the reservation more than a few times. If they can do it, why not Tame Impala too? They’ve even been working with legendary psych-pop producer Dave Fridmann, the man behind The Soft Bulletin and Oracular Spectacular, for their 2010 debut full length Innerspeaker as well as this new one Lonerism. The way in which he shapes Tame Impala’s sound into something more commercially viable can’t be ignored, though his magic is nothing compared to frontman Kevin Parker’s influence, which is so immense you might consider this band a solo project with a bunch of hired hands to recreate the songs in a live setting. Of course some of the other guys in the band might take offense to such a statement, but on any given song Parker is responsible for vocals, guitar, bass, drums and keys, which is essentially everything. He even reduces Fridmann’s normal job of in-studio producing to that of giving him the unmastered studio recordings and asking for judicial editing and a little bit of polish. It becomes an effortless blend of DIY home recorded aesthetic and present day glossy production, which is one of Lonerism‘s biggest charms.

While there is a certain modern aspect to the record, so much of it sounds like vintage ’60s psychedelia that under the right circumstances you might be able to fool a bunch of people into thinking it’s directly from that era. That task becomes even easier because Parker’s voice has enough John Lennon in it to convincingly present songs as some of the former Beatle’s long lost solo recordings. The day-glo vocal harmonies and quirky bounce of “Mind Mischief” for example feels cut from the same hangdog cloth Lennon often adopted, and the swirling shift it takes towards the end is gloriously “A Day in the Life”-like in nature. But Parker’s talents go beyond simple and unavoidable mimicry because he’s able to consistently find ways to challenge our expectations while still hanging onto a very real pop sensibility. Listen to the six minute swirl of “Apocalypse Dreams” to get a real taste of how he’ll change things up just as you’re starting to get comfortable. Instead of being disappointed by his yanking of the rug from underneath our feet, where things head next are almost always equal to or greater than whatever preceeded it. In other words, you’ve got to trust Parker has your best interests at heart and follow him into the darkness. There’s even a song near the end of the record that explains quite perfectly how you should approach these tracks: “Nothing That Has Happened So Far Has Been Anything We Could Control.” That sentiment makes “Music to Walk Home By” music you can walk home by, and “Why Won’t They Talk to Me?” a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The two songs on the album that really break free from any influences and previous work are the trunk-swinging stomp of “Elephant” and the gloriously strange drift of “Sun’s Coming Up.” Both stand out for completely different reasons as they represent Tame Impala at their most focused and unfocused. The former engineers an energetic, bass-heavy groove that’s jarring compared to everything else on the album, but it hits harder and is more addictive than anything else that comes before and after it. The latter track closes the record and might as well be two songs in one – a waltzy, dramatic piano ballad at the start and a shimmering, psychedelic guitar instrumental at the end. That imbalance doesn’t really do it any favors, but it does make for an excellent way to close out the record. All the other songs fly by on a breeze, so this gentle application of the brakes prepares us for the end. We’ve had all night to play, and now it’s a race against the impending day. “Sun’s coming up now / I guess it’s over,” Parker sings wistfully as the last lines of the album. For all the disappointment and heartbreak that’s chronicled throughout Lonerism, somehow this one cuts the deepest. Perhaps that’s because we too don’t want it to be over. Buried beneath the sadness is also triumph – the realization that the record you just heard was a masterful display of what modern psych-pop can and should be. Tame Impala have expanded and refined the core sound of their debut into a confident work of art worthy of being named one of 2012’s finest.

Tame Impala – Elephant (Canyons Wooly Mammoth Remix)

Buy Lonerism from Amazon

Show Review: Paul McCartney [Wrigley Field; Chicago; 8/1/11]

Sir Paul McCartney is a living legend. Anybody that disagrees with that statement needs to have their head checked. You can argue (somewhat pointlessly) that The Beatles were not the greatest band of all time and absolutely get away with it, but you cannot fight against their impact on the world. John Lennon once said that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”, and while he was wrong on that count, he was making a salient point about the immense popularity of the band. It has been over 40 years since The Beatles broke up, and their records and merchandise still sell like hotcakes, while evolutions such as the “Rock Band: Beatles” video game and a stereo remastering of the band’s catalogue have introduced a whole new generation to the Fab Four. The tragedy is that half of the Beatles are no longer living, what with John Lennon’s unfortunate murder in 1981 and George Harrison succumbing to lung cancer 10 years ago. The two remaining Beatles of course are Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, and it’s not tough to figure out which one has had the greater career. Sure, Ringo has been putting out album after album of solo material, but unlike the rest of the band, he’s the only one that hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work as an individual artist. Really he’s more known for his work towards peace activism. As for McCartney, well, his post-Beatles output may be the best out of everyone’s. First as part of Wings and then eventually fully solo, McCartney’s catalogue is one few artists can match. He continues to gain significant attention and traction when it comes to generating new music, and he’s had at least two new songs get strong radio airplay in the last couple years. After re-releasing Wings’ seminal album “Band on the Run” (again) last fall and a couple of his solo albums this past spring/early summer, Sir Paul scheduled a relatively brief summer tour of U.S. ballparks in support of that. His grand show arrived at the historic Wrigley Field for two nights this past Sunday and Monday. I snagged a ticket to the second show on Monday, and it was a night filled with nostalgia and celebration of a true living legend.

If you’ve never had the privilege of seeing a Paul McCartney show before, particularly in the last 10 years or so, allow me to clue you in as to what you’re missing. This current tour is being labeled “On the Run” in easy reference to Wings, but a different way to look at it is to say it’s a “run” through 50 years worth of music in just under 3 hours. Yes, at age 69, Sir Paul is still playing 3 hour shows and with the energy of a man at least half his age. Perhaps it’s that vegan diet of his, or maybe he’s crafted a deal with the devil, but he spends so much of the time dancing around the stage and moving from various guitars to piano and back again like he’s been doing it all his life (which he has). One thing McCartney is not shy about is working the crowd, as virtually every song ended with him stepping away from the microphone and throwing his hands up in an apparent effort to encourage more cheering. Applause is the lifeblood of any performer, and even at his age it apparently still means quite a bit. Still, today’s crowds must seem passive to him compared to the heyday of the Beatles, where people would be screaming wildly through every single song. It’s that sort of fanaticism that caused the Fab Four to stop touring. The crowd at Wrigley Field for night two was likely more relaxed than night one, the thought being that the more hardcore fans snapped up tickets to the first show because the second show was only announced after the first sold out. According to a friend of mine that attended both nights, people spent far more time sitting down at the second show, something that he failed to understand given the incredible set list.

Speaking specifically to the songs played Monday night at Wrigley, the hits just kept coming one after the other. In the past, McCartney has often refrained from playing a lot of Beatles songs, preferring instead to focus on his many accomplishments since that period of his life. More recently though, it seems he has had a change of heart and perhaps has gained a greater appreciation for the Fab Four’s catalogue. If you’ve examined any of the set lists that Sir Paul has been playing as part of this “On the Run” tour, you’re aware there’s been very little in the way of variation from night to night and a clear dominance of Beatles hits. The full breakdown goes something like this:

Total songs played – 39 (counting the individual portions of the “Abbey Road Medley”)
Beatles songs – 25
Wings songs – 8
McCartney solo songs – 3
The Firemen songs – 1
Cover songs – 2 (Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon)

You can have a glance at the full set list at the very bottom of this post. Was it a perfect set list? Very few people will argue that it was, but with such a huge catalogue everybody and their mother has an idea of what constitutes perfection. Well-rounded is the best way to describe it. If you wanted to hear “Drive My Car”, Sunday night was the time to see that one. The same goes for “Day Tripper” or “Get Back”. Some of the more unique qualities in Monday night’s show compared to the night before were moments like “Got to Get You Into My Life” , “I’m Looking Through You” and “I Saw Her Standing There”. Really it was only a few Beatles songs that were exchanged with other ones that differentiated the two nights, and the main points/stage banter were nearly scripted. There was the seamless transition from “Let Me Roll It” into a brief instrumental version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady”, followed by a story of how McCartney went and saw Hendrix perform a couple days after the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, only to find out the guitar virtuoso had already learned how to play a couple tracks from that record and was impressively covering them at the show. There was one of the two moments where McCartney acknowleged his most recent releases by playing “Dance Tonight” on mandolin while drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. did everything from the macarena to the disco skywards point in the background. There were the tributes to his old friends Harrison (“Something”) and Lennon (“Here Today” and the cover of “Give Peace A Chance”), and the all-out explosive firewoked version of “Live and Let Die”. Naturally, the set came to a close with a crowd sing-along version of “Hey Jude” that absolutely sends shivers down your spine. The entire night McCartney had his immensely talented band backing him, the same band he’s been working with for so many years and has established a strong rapport with. They’re not only spot-on with their instruments, but have a remarkable knack for recreating some of the complicated harmonies of the Beatles catalogue. Considering that there’s absolutely no chance of The Beatles ever coming back, the show was about as close as one could get to the real thing.

Does it even need to be mentioned that going to see Paul McCartney perform at any time at any location is always recommended? That doesn’t just go for persons of a certain age either. While the crowd at Wrigley Field on Monday night was primarily middle-aged and older, there were plenty of younger people and even families with small children that attended the show. I’d like to think that everyone had a great time, though honestly temperatures were in the 80s and with everyone packed in like sardines the whole evening was a sweaty mess. But weather aside, you’re not going to do much better than Paul McCartney when it comes to large-scale shows these days. It is a gift that he is still making the rounds and touring no matter if it’s 2 dates or 200, and in spite of his youthful spirit one can’t help but wonder just how much longer he’s going to keep it up. He may have told the crowd on Monday night that he’d “see us next time”, but we are under no assurances that there will be one. Savor it while you can, my friends. There are very few genuine rock stars left in this hype-a-minute world, and Paul McCartney is one of them.

Set List:
Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles)
Junior’s Farm (Wings)
All My Loving (The Beatles)
Jet (Wings)
Got to Get You Into My Life (The Beatles)
Sing the Changes (The Firemen)
The Night Before (The Beatles)
Let Me Roll It (Wings)
Foxy Lady Instrumental (Jimi Hendrix)
Paperback Writer (The Beatles)
The Long and Winding Road (The Beatles)
Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five (Wings)
Let ‘Em In (Wings)
Maybe I’m Amazed (McCartney)
I’m Looking Through You (The Beatles)
And I Love Her (The Beatles)
Blackbird (The Beatles)
Here Today (McCartney)
Dance Tonight (McCartney)
Mrs. Vandebilt (Wings)
Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
Something (The Beatles)
Band on the Run (Wings)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles)
Back in the USSR (The Beatles)
I’ve Got A Feeling (The Beatles)
A Day in the Life (The Beatles)
Give Peace A Chance (John Lennon)
Let It Be (The Beatles)
Live and Let Die (Wings)
Hey Jude (The Beatles)
\**ENCORE 1**/
Lady Madonna (The Beatles)
Birthday (The Beatles)
I Saw Her Standing There (The Beatles)
\**ENCORE 2**/
Yesterday (The Beatles)
Helter Skelter (The Beatles)
Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End (The Beatles)

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