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May 26, 2006

The 1900s mix a bit of Belle with a bit of Sebastian

When I write music reviews, I try to make my job easier by reading everything that has already been written about a band, in the hopes that some other journalist will tell me what my opinions should be. The first thing I noticed when looking over the Chicago-based 1900s’ press was the frequent comparison between them and Scottish indie legends Belle & Sebastian.

Now, frankly, you can compare any band to Belle & Sebastian and come away with an infinite number of similarities. (Guns N’ Roses is like Belle & Sebastian because they both have two words in their names, joined by some variant of the word “and,” and because many of their songs last for well over five minutes, and because they are both popular with college students. I could go on.)

The question isn’t whether the 1900s are like Belle & Sebastian—we are all like Belle & Sebastian. The question is whether the two bands’ similarities outweigh their differences, and, if so, whether that means you should listen to the 1900s. Let’s play compare ’n’ contrast.

Compare: Like Belle & Sebastian, the 1900s consist of seven members, which, if you believe in mysticism and numerology, means that these two bands are practically indistinguishable. The 1900s make full use of their many members, throwing in violins and an electric harpsichord and a Hammond, which is apparently an electric organ (thank you, Wikipedia). This instrumental creativity gives the 1900s a multilayered, exciting sound—exciting because who knows what instrument will show up next?

Like Belle & Sebastian, the 1900s sometimes have dudes sing lead while the girls sing backup, and sometimes it’s the other way around. This has also earned them comparisons to the Velvet Underground, but I don’t see that, because I can actually listen to Caroline Donovan and Jeanine O’Toole sing lead (which is more than I can say for Nico).

Like Belle & Sebastian, the 1900s have that indie-hippie revival thing going on. I know this because I looked at their photos, and many of their seven members have long, flowy hair and complacent smiles. This is cool because it means I could hang out in a field with them, and we could play tag or braid dandelions or something. (Seriously, you can’t do this with many bands. Think about it. Franz Ferdinand would not want to get their stylish clothes dirty by sitting around on some grass. Guns N’ Roses would get bored and do drugs.) Frankly, if I were spending the afternoon in a field, the 1900s would be very fitting background music.

Contrast: Unlike Belle & Sebastian, the 1900s don’t pack much of an emotional punch. I wrote that they would be fitting background music for lounging in a field; honestly, they would be fitting background music for anything. Studying to the 1900s would be a very pleasant experience. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to relate to the 1900s’ music on any personal level. It’s just not meaningful.

This fault can be partially attributed to their lyrics. The first song on their EP begins, “Bring the good boys home/ Wrap them in licorice and tie them to stones/ String them up to planes in the sky/ There’s no need to wonder why.”

To give them the benefit of the doubt: Perhaps this means something, and I just don’t get it. Lots of bands have obscure lyrics (notably, Belle & Sebastian). But the melody and tone of the vocals provide no emotional cues regarding listeners’ interpretations of these songs. A musician like Jeff Buckley could sing the most mundane lyrics, and you still understood, somehow, that you felt sad; the 1900s would be hard-pressed to wring such a strong feeling from their audience.

That said, not every album needs to forge a bond with its listeners. Sometimes, interesting, pleasant music is enough. You should give the 1900s a listen after their EP, Plume Delivery, is released on Parasol Records on Tuesday.

The first song, “Bring the Good Boys Home,” is one of the best tracks, jumping off with a riff that sounds straight out of a garage-rock hit from the Nuggets’ box set. In its last minute, this song builds to a satisfyingly lush crescendo. Meanwhile, the closing song, “Heart Props,” is the simplest, shortest, poppiest, and most enjoyable track on here. Disappointingly, the other four songs are just generally inoffensive and nice.

The 1900s’ record release party is Saturday, June 3 at Schubas. You should go. It’s no fun having a Chicago-based band if you don’t attend their record release party. Obviously.