Chicago music: A brief guide to the city’s scene

A smidgen of what Chicago has to offer

By Rob Underwood

Meah!: Taking clear inspiration from lo-fi king Robert Pollard, as well as the metal-inflected drone riffs of bands like Earth, Meah! is even able to break out of these genre subdivisions by spiking their scratchy instrumentation with strategically placed, shrill cries of what could either be jubilation or horror. Their sound is so lo-fi that it only seems necessary for them to have vocal outbursts, making their self-designation of “gospel” based more on passionate exclamation than any penitential inspiration. All things considered, however, Meah! is a classic example of two ingredients which would be awful or boring alone, but combined create entrancing and ambitious results.

Sharkula (Non-sequitur rap): While perhaps not technically a real genre, little else can describe this Chicago rapper’s penchant for scatterbrained and playful lyrics that have little-to-nothing to do with one another. Well, perhaps his first album’s title can, most (in)appropriately named Martin Luther King Jr. Whopper With Cheese. The only possible common thread throughout his work is its apolitical nature, particularly considering that he mentions every other conceivable aspect of city-living, from Toyota commercials to lice and indigestion. Aside from his lyrical exuberance, his beats always serve as smooth underpinnings for an enthusiastic personality. Otherwise, he would lose himself in pure nonsense.

The Earth Is A Man (Psychedelic prog/jam): Considering the genre’s recent tendency of individual largesse (along with dumb lyrics) rather than true collaborative improvisation, skepticism toward new outcroppings of prog-jam outfits is warranted. The Earth Is A Man’s music, however, always displays their undeniable indie and distortion-inflected roots. While all members exhibit a clear rapport with their instruments and use techniques which raise them from talented to damn good, rarely do they let themselves lose track of where the others are. Grooves build slowly from bubbly and exhilarating licks into either a frenzied guitar-solo finish, or a wash of pathos-infused distortion (a slight nod to shoegaze and its psychedelic possibilities). While their first album is forthcoming, The Earth Is A Man has been running the Chicago concert circuit and should prove to be a formidable musical group that can bring jam rock back to some level of prominence. And there are no lyrics, which is always a plus.

The Engines (Avant-garde jazz): Comprised of some of Chicago’s best known individual musicians (trombonist Jeb Bishop, saxophonist Dave Rempis, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Tim Daisy), this quartet relies heavily on the interaction between the horns and drums, furthered by the subdivision between the trombone and sax to create their unique sound. Non-linear and seemingly out-of-time toots are a consistent facet of their material, with either Bishop or Rempis taking the improvisational fore, but McBride’s subdued, walking bass-lines keep the musical verbosities grounded and the horns short of unlistenable brassiness.

Moonshine Willy (Punk bluegrass/rockabilly): While many folk punk and country punk combinations consistently tilt toward the punk side of the spectrum, Moonshine Willy has been building a loyal fan base (not just in their native Chicago, but across the country) since 1992 by doing just the opposite. Punk’s proclivity for crooning vocals is almost completely thrown out here, with front-woman Kim Doctor-Luke maintaining a soothing balance between yodeling swoons and melodic balladry. Same goes for the string accompaniment, fleshed out not only with multiple guitars but also mandolins, banjos, and fiddles which reprise the band’s bluegrass roots. While not the most terribly original or ground-breaking collective, the maintenance of musically legitimate country tones and refreshing vocalization make Moonshine Willy absolutely worth a listen.