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April 20, 2004

Oh My God concert and Swansea Mass CD show best of Chicago rock scene

On April 10, I found myself at the Double Door. Maybe it was the dinner I had (I had a strawberry milkshake) or the dinner I should have had, but the pulses from Calliope, Plane, and Oh My God, while different in nature, all made me feel like displacing my neighbors to gyrate, jump, and put my fist in the air, as I am wont to do when slightly inebriated in a darkened room. (On a sidenote, I promise never to use "wont" again.)

I just picked up Oh My God's album, Interrogations & Confessions, last week. I've been hooked on them since I saw the lead singer, Billy O'Neill, do a manic dance in a near-Russian vein during a Better Boyfriends show at a Northside gallery last year. I was thrilled to see that Oh My God were playing in Chicago. I cursorily listened to the album just to get a taste—and the thing that most stood out was the way the trio (organ/drums/voice and occasionally bass-guitar, played by Billy) subverted themselves. The absence of more than one harmonic instrument is testament to this. Many of the songs end abruptly, which makes for partial identities. Also, some melodies are, to use an exclamation from "The Unbearable Pageant"'s chorus, "boring," which gives the song an air of flippancy and undermines the lyrics' sincerity.

At this point, I must allow for the possibility that the enterprise is more ironic than I would wish from any band. The final track, "Rat-Man's Confession," a 17-minute spoken-word effort beginning with a sped-up aria, pushes me in the ironic direction. Let me be perfectly clear. There are many compelling aspects to the album: the beginning of "The Unbearable Pageant," "Volatile," "February 14," and the aforementioned final track. Still, "Get Steady," "Pearls of Wisdom" and "Our Loves" just never get off the ground for me, which is somewhat damning, given the togetherness of the group. If they did this in a live setting, I was not entirely certain I would give them another chance. Let me tell you about the show, which featured three Chicago ensembles.

Unfortunately, I missed the first band, Sybris. So Calliope—an instrumental-heavy folk-rock quartet hailing from Michigan—were the first to enter my ears. The first half of the set was better than the second, because it had more tension and felt more alive. After the show, some healthy and beautiful people remarked that the lead singer resembles Neil Young. It's true; he does. It probably has something to do with his long, straight hair, his broad forehead, and his mouth. I suppose I was too caught up in his stage presence to notice the likeness, for he clasped his hands together and smiled as if his songs were sermons (this is not the only way to deliver sermons, to be sure). This same man, Andrew Dryer, plays brass as well—a combination that initially made me anxious, though, luckily, my fears proved unfounded. Some synth guitar, Latin strumming, and multiple melodies made for a fresh sound, and there's nothing at all wrong with a fresh sound. Is the Oh My God album too fresh for me? Maybe that's what it is.

Plane, whose December show at the Metro with Health and Beauty made me queasy, have made some progress. The guitar work seems much more complex, which distracts me from the occasionally flat melodies. A few songs reminded me of the Strokes, for better or worse. But one song in particular got to meæI wish I knew its name!æwhich featured high-pitched crooning by the lead guitarist during the chorus. If Plane can push their harmonies a bit, and keep the crooning, there's no reason not to expect beautiful things. To be fair, the crowd was quite into them, but to be even fairer, I don't like the way the vocalist tried to stare down the audience. Oh My God lead singer Billy O'Neill put him to shame in that regard.

At this point I got my obligatory Jagermeister shot, since I felt bad about asking the bartender for two waters. Headliners Oh My Godæand Billy in particularætook their precious time to appear. Once they did, however, they made quite an impression. I came expecting to see the beard Billy sported in the past. This time, however, he came clean-shaven with a white face, painted lipsætwice as large as his real lips, which are large to begin withæand black patches around his eyes. He wore a black two-piece that was half kimono, half martial-arts suit, with red rivulets in the sleeves and legs and lacing exposed on the back. And by the end of the set, he was busy stripping off his archaic garb.

Iguana's organ playing was unfortunately arbitrary at times—I'm thinking of one high-speed rhythmic device that he used numerous times—but for the most part he was quite adept and fulfilled the band's need for volume. The intimacy of Billy's near-operatic voice was quite moving, even during the ballads, which, if recorded, might fall flat. In addition, countless cock references colored the evening. At one point, Billy said, "Let's fuck," to everyone in the room, only to turn away and grin somewhat menacingly. Boy, was I absorbed. The cleanness of the words also helped in this regard. Lighting was a problem insofar as it served only to glorify Billy. You can't have god-like presence and intimacy, is what I always say. Whatever Billy did achieve, it was thoroughly entertaining and a bit harrowing, to be honest. If only Lila Pearl could make sense of this manifold hunk for me, I would sleep a lot easier. As the Russians say, "Xa, xa, xa!"

As a final musical note, I would like to reveal that I have been listening to Hyde Park's own Swansea Mass's debut release on loud devices, a seven-inch (come off it) with two tracks, "Silver Venus" and "Chessy." Though I have never seen them perform live—which I lament—I have had a hankering for them ever since the Second Base compilation, which had Swansea Mass' "Except by Sound" for its second track. This hankering might even be seen as a sort of jealousy since I must confess that their drive is formidable, and what more can one want than drive?

Their sound, for those not familiar with it, combines a understated rhythm section, drums by Emma Bryant, and bass by Anne Stevens with dreamy-yet-steady guitar work and is cappedæthink night-capæby Jeff Rufo's withdrawn and tender voice, which differs from the Hyde Park Records track in this very tenderness. It's a welcome, if not necessarily better, change. "Silver Venus" leaves you in a near catatonic state, which, once the song ends, transitions into one example of Adderall-induced lucidity. The track begins with a fade-in jam (there has to be a better word for thisæmaybe "marjoram") featuring a mellow and timely snare-presence and a lead-guitar (Pavan Singh) reminiscent of "Bold as Love" and, conveniently enough, Jason Lantrip's contributions to Calliope at the Double Door. When the voice enters, we are hooked on the track until its close, which seems to affect the quality of the rest of it.

"Chessy" begins with a hook and proceeds quickly into an more upbeat (though perhaps less harmonically interesting) section. Luckily, when the vocals enter, the group shifts to a more straightforward feel. I'll be singing "Word on the street is that you pretty clever" for a long while, I'm sure. The change-ups that occur three-and-a-half minutes into the song seem a bit heavy-handed. Perhaps they would go over better if they were live. In short, I'm pleased by this Hyde Park landmark. Plus, that's a great name for a band. It gets me thinking.