by MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
Liam Hayes shares many of the same compulsions of the classic pop auteurs we are already familiar with. Like Brian Wilson, Burt Bacharach, Pete Ham, or Todd Rundgren, his music ruminates with bittersweet harmonies, seductive pop melodies, and the kind of craftsmanship that requires everything in its right place even if it takes years of deliberation.
After three albums released between 1998-2009 that earned him comparisons to many heroes of the pop canon, Hayes is back with a fourth — “Slurrup” (Fat Possum), a new set of songs that is more scaled back, featuring fewer musicians, shorter songs, and cranked-up spontaneous energy.
The title song could be the album’s manifesto: Clocking in at just over 90 seconds, it is a psychedelic jam that leads to the strutting “One Way Out,” which later unfolds with strumming power pop of “Get It Right,” and the chugging rock guitars of “Fokus.” All the songs hover near the two-minute mark and, unlike his previous work which emanated largely from the piano, these use the guitar as the focal point, making comparisons to Badfinger and Mott the Hoople inevitable.
“I just wanted to make something that was a record I would have made before first record. That is to say, one that would have been more made by the kid who was playing in the garage. Not that I saw it as a garage record but just that kind of spirit of not really caring about what the grownups were going to say,” he says.
Hayes, who also records under the name Plush, was inspired to push things into a looser direction, moving away from using strings or horns and toward a more conventional rock setting, due to his recent work in film. Two years ago filmmaker Roman Coppola hired Hayes to write new songs for “A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III,” which starred Charlie Sheen, Bill Murray, Patricia Arquette, among others. Hayes also appeared in the film, a duty he also served in 2000 when he played himself in “High Fidelity.”
The brief detour pushed him to rethink his own process: If Coppola could deliver a creative project as complex as a film in a short period of time, Hayes thought, why is it taking him years to bang out a fresh batch of songs? Two years later, “Slurrup” arrived.
“It helped me get those gears turning again,” he says. “It shouldn’t take a lifetime to make a record.”
Although he lives in Milwaukee, Hayes grew up in Chicago where he studied classical piano since age 7. Four years later he drifted to the guitar because he could envision himself playing it as an adult, similar to all the people he admired talking to him through his radio.
“That seemed cooler than sitting at a piano,” he says. “Although there were certainly cool people playing the piano in popular music, they were not quite as cool as slinging a guitar around.”
His music is so singular, it sounds like it originates less from a geographical place than from a record collection vast with deep cuts stretching back decades. However Chicago plays a significant role in his music, Hayes says, because living there “engenders the blues,” less in the sound and more in the feeling.
“I don’t think the songs that I wrote would have been what they are separate from the environment that they were created in,” he says.
Besides the golden blues great that created so much classic music here decades ago, Hayes says he is most connected to the Chicago bands that took the next step and created a homegrown British Invasion: Chicago’s under-appreciated garage rock scene of the 1960s represented by bands like the New Colony Six and the Shadows of Knight. “If you look a little deeper, there’s some things in there that you hear that are part of that feeling or sound that is unique to Chicago,” he says. “People think that they had a couple of hits for the kids, but they were doing their thing and waving the flag for the city.”
For his album release show at Schubas Saturday, Hayes will play with a trio, which is a perfect fit for the new songs and, for older ones that are more orchestrated, will push the musicians to find new inroads.
For him, the connection between both ends of the musical spectrum is melancholy that makes Hayes a throwback to a previous era in pop music where singers and songwriters reflected vulnerability opposed to pure swagger or postured defiance.
“A lot of the pop music in the past there were people who were able to walk that line between happiness and sadness and that’s a real complete kind of emotional experience to take, especially in a song,” he says. “There’s something about that that makes it deeper and richer.”