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Jazz purists beware, indie lovers rejoice
Chicago Underground Duo
The new album Locus from the Chicago Underground Duo, now in its 17th year of existence, is a demonstration of a way-left-of-center jazz album that goes so far that it doesn’t really sound like jazz anymore.
Cornetist Rob Mazurek, also of the superb ensembles Exploding Star Orchestra and Starlicker, and percussionist Chad Taylor, who leads the outfit Circle Down and plays with guitarist Marc Ribot, comprise the duo, which originally developed from the “Chicago Underground” avant-garde jazz workshop started by Mazurek in the mid-’90s.
Locus finds the band working with engineer John McEntire, best known as one of the drummers of Tortoise, and perhaps Tortoise’s exploratory work is a good point of comparison—heavy on the rhythms and synthetic melodies and typically not landing squarely within a single genre.
The killer title, opening track matches a funk beat with a thick, sticky synth envelope sound sucking in and out, and it’s followed by “Boss,” which builds in intensity with jungle-influenced acoustic drumming, light electronic squeals that bounce between the ears, a smooth synth bass pattern and a sound-treated cornet melody that disintegrates.
“The Human Economy” is hard to pin down, with a pitter-patter of technology, a looming backbone and echoing brass notes, and “Yaa Yaa Kole” is a stirring cover of the Ghanian song by Pan African Orchestra with disorienting polyrhythmic threads that ramp up to an even higher energy level at the end, with distorted drums and a frantic Harmon-muted horn solo.
The amorphous “House of the Axe” has a mean, dirty sound (think Embryonic by The Flaming Lips) with electronic bubblings that violently boil over, and one of the best tracks is the closer, “Dante,” a furious track with menacing synth tones, a warped, shrieking cornet and piano chords supplying the only semblance of order—it’s like a free jazz version of a horror soundtrack by Goblin.
Jazz purists wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole, but for those who love to hear musical boundaries being stretched and mangled, ruthlessly, Locus hits the spot.
The limited edition nine-volume cassette series Fits on the Life Like tape label, centered on the Michigan underground scene, is a multi-media project with a simple premise.
Each tape’s artwork was reproduced as a silk-screened print as part of an Ann Arbor art installation in January and February, and every 15-minute cassette pairs two different artists who “fit together in some way” as described by the label, be it in a harmonic or more unusual way.
This writer confesses to being a Saturday Looks Good to Me completist, and that band’s contribution is a highlight, providing a haunting, minimal cover of Sky Ferreira’s “Everything is Embarrassing” with electric piano notes, a simple time-keeping beat and tender female vocals with cavernous reverb; it’s paired with Tyvek’s “Life Outside” which uses jumpy, slacker lo-fi garage rock slashes.
“Godzilla of Snow” by Windy & Carl is in the duo’s typically welcoming, soothing treated-guitar bliss-out style with gentle pulses nudging the song along gingerly, and Dean Allen Spunt’s oddball track on the B side uses a maddening homemade facsimile of a factory rhythm.
A standout in the series is the glistening instrumental hip-hop song “Turquoise Boys” from Mild $auce, with samples of ocean waves and comforting electronics, and Sylvan Lanes’ strum-and-sing cover of Semisonic’s late-’90s hit “Closing Time” manages to strip away a little of its corniness but doesn’t quite transcend the “ironic indie cover” status.
Ian Svenonius (Chain and the Gang, Nation of Ulysses) appears under the moniker Escape-ism, not sounding like a James Brown homage, but more like a basement tape with Jad Fair-esque rambles and a sloppy method.
Stylistically, the series is all over the place, from abstract noise and ambient moments to more structured pop/rock tunes, and although everyone probably wouldn’t be expected to enjoy it all—in particular, the spoken-word experiments drag down the more vibrant songs—there’s likely something for every indie-leaning listener.