February 24, 2004

Sybris, Timeout Drawer, and the Detholz: noise with a high I.Q.

I hate Valentine's Day. Call me a misanthrope, but to my mind no other organized holiday exists with such untamed malice as the Day of Love. Between the agony of sitting next to couples longingly gazing into each other's vapid eyes on the subway and the silent humiliation radiating from the man in the gorilla suit forced to deliver a dozen roses and a half-hearted jig to somebody's better half, Valentine's Day goes out of its way to break the spirit. It demands a tithe of blood, cash, or dignity, and woe upon you should you choose to defy it.

Now, usually I try to avoid anything to do with the dreaded V-Day. Rather than walk the streets like an accursed ghost—flitting in between the dark, solid masses of lip-locked lovers—I usually just put on Muddy Waters, play with some power tools, and sort all the pennies in my change bucket.

Sometimes, change it up a little and listen to, say, some of Tom Wait's less coherent monologues or hammer nails into a piece of wood and pull them out again. But for the most part, my routine served me well.

However, this year, something went horribly wrong. In a moment of weakness, I went outside. And so, before I had even pieced together what I had done, I found myself standing outside of the Subterranean, gawking like the proverbial country bumpkin.

For someone as unaccustomed as I am to venturing outside of cheap basement dives and run-down gin mills, the Subterranean is incredibly intimidating. It's a concert venue/drinking establishment built like Yao Ming at a Berlin cabaret—three straight narrow stories of checkerboard burlesque, faded velvet couches, and elegant fixtures. The only lights in the place are focused on the narrow bars lining the backs of each story. They look like they were acquired at Al Capone's yard sale, on the stage where your grandfather watched girls dance the can-can.

Still gaping at the club's appearance, I approached the bar and ordered a drink, watching Sybris plug in. A female-fronted four piece that play music a good friend of mine charmingly refers to as "Belly-lite," Sybris specialize in echoing guitars and haunting arrangements reminiscent of the Fiery Furnaces.

Musically adept, lyrically incomprehensible, and not adverse to the occasional burst of noise, Sybris should have been the perfect opening band for an unwanted Valentine's Day. However, their set was hampered by technical problems, which robbed them of any musical momentum. Furthermore, Sybris' frontwoman had a disturbing habit of singing to one of the Subterranean's support beams located just off stage right.

As Sybris hauled their equipment off the stage, I noticed that the crowd had begun to grow, slowly winding up the stairs like fog in a Humphrey Bogart movie. I shrugged, watching as the Timeout Drawer set up an impressive array of keyboards, guitars, and effects pedals. One of the more original local bands, the Timeout Drawer are an instrumental four-piece who play a fearsome brand of noise rock heavy on watery keyboards and stabbing guitars. I sipped my drink, thinking, "This could be interesting."

There is an art to the production of noise that very few bands these days seem to understand. While it is satisfying in the most visceral sense to produce cacophony, very few seem to be concerned with making a listenable row. Of all the local bands I've seen recently in Chicago, the Timeout Drawer are one of the few who seem able to pull melodies out of the pummeling din, making songs that you can feel in your ribcage and still hum days later. It's dance music for children who liked to bang pots and pans while whistling nursery rhymes.

And so we danced and bobbed, the audience and I, not stopping while the Timeout Drawer played, ignoring the ill-fated day and all that comes with it. Unfortunately, all good bands unfairly placed in the support slot must have their sets come to an end. And so it was that we, the sweaty and disheveled, scrambled for seats to await the final band, the Detholz.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening, the Detholz played a tight, melodic set of artsy, Devo-esque rock and roll as surreal as it was catchy. Dressed in matching white outfits and fronted by a bespectacled lead singer (who shook like an epileptic and gyrated his hips like an Elvis impersonator on amphetamines), the Detholz continued to extol the virtues of L-U-V long after the stroke of midnight. Regaling us with songs about Mr. Electricity and interstellar hookups, the Detholz were the straw that broke the camel's back—I was dancing, and on Valentine's Day nonetheless.

Lest you think that this is going to become a regular habit, I've already taken precautions for next year's February disaster. No, sir, I'm staying in, listening to the Detholz and the Timeout Drawer and doing some spot-welding.

No sense in tempting fate twice in a row.