Category Archives: Recent Posts

Signal-to-Noise: All-in and No Fear

Michael Downing did something most of us daydream about before going back to typing, turning a wrench, or foaming a latte. He quit his day job to put it all on the line for his music, a solo act called Signal-to-Noise. He shut himself in his Chicago apartment to compose, record and produce his first album, I Won’t Let the World Become a Prison.

“Signal-to-Noise is a reminder to live in the present, look inwards, turn down the noise, and find your signal,” says Downing on his website. As an artist with a wide range, that’s pretty much exactly what he’s doing.

I Won’t Let the World Become a Prison is a search in progress. Self-described as “electro-rock/dream-pop”, Downing layers instruments and his own vocals to create an album that can be soothing one minute and unsettling the next. Sometimes simultaneously. A good example of this is a stretch on the album in songs 4-6—Avenall, Biologic, and Night Owl—a small journey that explores both dream states and anxious energy.

What Downing delivers with I Won’t Let the World Become a Prison deserves our admiration. But, as I’m sure Downing would tell you himself, the music is what matters. There is serious talent on this album—both in pure instrumental skill and composition. We would not be surprised to see Downing’s music get greater attention in the months to come. And any band would be wise to consider an attempt to pry him away from the solo scene.

We love a meticulous musical exploration. Have a listen below. The full album is now available on iTunes, and you can also see an acoustic Signal-to-Noise set on Saturday, May 9 at Chicago Bagel Authority at 6 PM.

Welcome Milwaukee’s The New Red Moons

When you get an email about a trio from Milwaukee releasing their sophomore album, you expect to hear something down to earth. Perhaps understated but bar-worthy. What doesn’t immediately come to mind is “sophisticated” or “intriguing.”

But that’s exactly what you get with The New Red Moons and their new album, Mesmérisme.

These guys are tight. Joe McIlheran’s vocals are precise and controlled while his guitar riffs compliment, rather than complicate the overall arrangement. Kavi Laud’s drums and Jeff Brueggeman’s bass roll right along too, so that the songs are what shine, not any of the individual musicians. In my book, that’s a hell of a good start to a new-ish band.

But what does it sound like? Well, if you haven’t hit the play button on the video below, I’d put it something like this: I hear Queen. I hear Muse. I hear backwater blues, and a little foot-stomp. The New Red Moons are a little difficult to pin down, which is good. “Cheating on You” brings a kind of bluesy slow funk vibe. “This Can’t Be the End” carries some front porch swing feelings with it. Together, on the same album, it works.


If I had to pick on anything, it’s a couple of the ballads. While heartfelt and somewhat relaxing, they don’t seem play to the strengths of the band just yet. It’s a small nit to pick.

Mesmérisme is available for download on The New Red Moons website. We’ve already listened to it several times and it gets better with each spin. Vinyl will be available on July 11. Here’s something else I like about this band, from their website: “Like the last album, we limited ourselves to what we could play live, and that meant no double tracking, and no trickery.”

You can catch them live in Milwaukee, July 11 at Club Garibaldi, and in Chicago, July 24 The Abbey’s Green Room. (Gents, bring your own Spotted Cow. Chicago lacks it.)

Mumford & Sons’s Ballsy Career Move

One way bands explode on the music scene and sell millions of records is to spearhead an entire genre at the right time. Take Mumford & Sons–they’ve made countryside rocking bluegrass hot, and themselves a big pile of money.

Then the bandwagon gets heavy, slow, and plodding. The idyllic countryside becomes a chic marketing strategy (looking at you, Lumineers) and the music becomes a little less pure, a little more annoying–almost insulting. If not careful, the spearhead becomes dead weight.

So how do you stop from becoming a punchline? If you’re Mumford & Sons, you plunge the spearhead deep into the shriveling heart of the genre itself. You parody yourselves and every quality people will eventually hate you for–the down-home posture; the banjo shredding; the brotherly harmonies; the emotional orgasm of every song. And you do it with a music video featuring some of the most likable actors of your target demographic.

You might think this would be band suicide. And I guess that’s possible. But a preemptive strike such as this forces you to take a side. It places a decision at your feet–whether you will remain a fan of the music (and the band) for what is, not just when it is. It’s a decision that Mumford & Sons knows damn well you’d make anyway, eventually. Only now, it’s on their terms. They just took control of their own fate.

My decision is made. Long live Mumford.

Long Islands, Happenstance, and The Burning of Rome

While walking to a show at Lincoln Hall, we come across a chalkboard sign outside Lilly’s, on Lincoln Avenue. “$5 Long Island Ice Teas”, it reads. Inside there’s a band playing loudly. And no cover charge. The perfect detour.

So there we are—four guys who instantly (and significantly) elevate the median age of said establishment, sipping Long Islands and taking in a new band before our planned show.

AguilarThe Burning of Rome, from San Diego, is playing in front of no more than 20 people in the bar (it was an impromptu gig, as they were returning from Summerfest) and all of them are transfixed—us included—along with front man Adam Traub’s girlfriend’s mother, who is gleefully boarding the band for the night. “They’re such nice guys!” she tells me.

Without that tidbit, “nice guys” is about the last thing you would say in a game of word association with The Burning of Rome. With an album titled Death-pop (which includes the song Norman Bates) “frightening” might be more fitting. I imagine any self-respecting right-winger would call them “threatening.” They are gloomy and aggressive. Keyboards are pounded. Guitars are shredded properly—upright, on top of amps, in the crowd, on the ground, and on the sides of walls (pictured), thanks to the extremely entertaining Joe Aguilar.

I hear flecks of Black Sabbath (and Black Flag), early Soundgarden, and Bowie, along with a slurry of Devo, The Gorillaz, and the circus… not a band, but the actual circus. Above all, this is a talented group that plays with explosive passion. Unbridled, but not out of control. Definitely all-out entertaining. Passersby kept poking their heads in the door, and I kept willing them in—wondering how in the world you could hear such a thing and not stop in for a few minutes. And that’s not the Long Islands talking.

We chatted with the band after the show. So while I could see their music becoming a target of the next ill-advised crusade to protect the youth of America, they really are nice guys, and a lady. Honest.

Take a few spins, below.
By the way, the intended show was Rogue Wave. My review of that: “meh.”

Chicago Bands at Lollapalooza, 2013

by Brynn J. Alexander

Although Lollapalooza has brought musicians and fans from all over the world to Grant Park since 2005, a surprisingly small number of those musicians actually hail from Chicago. Now that this year’s lineup for the festival has been announced, it turns out there are six acts from Chicago, and with a range of genres from hip-hop to indie to experimental rock, there’s something here for everyone.

Need Lollapalooza tickets?

Wild Belle is brother-and-sister due Elliot and Natalie Bergman. They grew up in Chicago, and will be playing songs from their debut album, Isles, at Lollapalooza this year. Their music is a mixture of indie rock with touches of ska and even jazz.

 

Barely out of high school after graduating early, The Orwells are set to explode this year, already getting attention from MTV and Pitchfork. With several EPs and a full-length album already released, they have plenty of material to entertain audiences this summer.

 

Chance the Rapper will certainly be one of the crowd favorites this year, as the young artist is making waves through the hip-hop world after being laughed at by his teachers and told that his music would never amount to anything. Chance has already toured with noted acts such as Childish Gambino, and has released several singles to national acclaim.

 

Fans of concept rock will want to catch Makeshift Prodigy when they play Lollapalooza this year. The Chicago-based band specializes in intense, story-driven songs, with a strong emphasis on the visual aspects of their performance.

 

Relative veterans Smith Westerns are back this festival season with a third album on the way, and will be rocking crowds this summer at Lolla with their special mixture of Brit-influenced glam rock. Their shows are always high-energy, and local fans will be glad to see them where they belong, on a big stage.

 

Last but certainly not least, Supreme Cuts will take the stage with their own flavor of hip-hop-influenced EDM and experimental electronica. Describing their sound as “apocalyptic cloud rap,” this duo will appeal to a wide array of electronic music fans, whether you’re into hip-hop or not.