Moving melodies: The Chamber Strings redefines pop music
By MARK GUARINO
Daily Herald Music Critic
Some music campaigns for your affection with excitable song hooks, preening vocals and pounding production values.
But that’s really a formula just to get your attention. And once that happens, the romance (if there ever was on in the first place) is soon over. You, noble listener, were duped.
Other music doesn’t have to work so hard. It’s familiar, but at the same time entirely fresh. It’s the music a teenage Brian Wilson once dreamed of in his bedroom – universal and personal, happy and forlorn, tugging at you warmly, but troubling at the same time.
You find yourself moved for whatever reason. You can’t figure out why, but maybe that’s the point.
It’s the type of music made by The Chamber Strings, a band from Chicago – a location that shouldn’t matter. Their second album, “Month of Sundays” (Bobsled), could have been recorded 30 years ago in Memphis or maybe London 30 years int he future. Melting with guitars and caked with bells, brass and strings, the album comes from the timeless world where pop music offers temporarily truth on a sweet silver lining.
There hasn’t been music like it in quite a long time.
Kevin Junior, The Chamber Strings’ primary songwriter, picked the band name and once he did, “everything started going right.” He booked their first show. After that, he never had to book a show again. The press, the club owners, the booking managers, once they heard the music, doors opened. This for a band whose first label went belly up after selling only 1,000 copies.
Then came Bobsled Records, the Aurora- based label gearing up to be a pop music powerhouse with the will, ingenuity and financial craftiness to contend with major labels. Bobsled re-released “Gospel Morning” and is posed to make The Chamber Strings a household name.
Considering that bottom feeders like Fred Durst and Papa Roach are housesitting every home in America, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.
“Month of Sundays” features arrangements combining Memphis soul, British pop and ’60s garage rock with little bits like tubular bells, horn and string sections thrown in. In just over six minutes, the song “It’s No Wonder” swells with epic grandeur as Junior’s wounded soul vocals rise with it. The song sounds like it was written by someone with their record collection on their sleeves – or maybe someone with an appetite for an era of classic songwriting.
“I love a lot of stuff from 1965 to 1966 up to 1972 to 1973. There was just some amazing music that came out of that period,” he said. “I think if I take the ’90s, I’m sure I could come with 100 records that were really great. But in 1972, there were 100 records just from that year.”
Even though he’s 31, Junior has had a full life soaking up music. He escaped Akron, Ohio at the age of 16 (“If you were a Ramones fan … you were a total weirdo”) and moved to Chicago’s North Side to live with his father, a business type who traveled half the time. That gave his son the freedom to skip school and haunt the underground music scene.
He started hanging around Wax Trax and scored his first gig playing at the now-defunct club Batteries Not Included.
Two consecutive beatings from gangbangers led him to drop out of Lincoln Park High School for good, get hired at a record store and do music full-time. He front the glam-rock band Mystery Girls and then the folkier Rosehips.
But a chance encounter with British cult hero Epic Soundtracks turned him in a different direction entirely. Soundtracks, known for his soul-searching piano ballads, was touring the United States accompanied by just his piano. When he returned to England, he phoned Junior and asked him for help putting together a band.
Junior and Rosehips drummer Anthony Illarde spent the next three years touring on and off and recording with Soundtracks in Europe. In late 1997, when Junior began assembling songs for “Gospel Morning,” Soundtracks was found dead at his home, presumably a suicide.
“Epic and I just had so much the same tastes. I thought he was a wonderful songwriter. I wanted this record to sound like it,” he said.
Junior returned home a few years older, with experience as a headliner and a hunger to start his own band.
“Nobody’s going to be able to stop that now,” he told himself.
The impact of Soundtrack’s death can be heard through the haunting piano that is beneath many of Junior’s songs.
“Our Dead Friends,” the ending song on “Month of Sundays,” reflects on dying friend but without typical remorse.
“Some are gone from the life that they led/some slipped by, got misled … our dear departed living underground/in empty yards in the back of every town/lost their time, now their lives can be found…” he sings as the music slumbers tenderly underneath.
These lyrics are key to the album’s mood, which is both warmly optimist and chillingly melancholy. Junior admits to writing the songs after long stretches of depression when he couldn’t even pick up a guitar. He consciously waited to write only when things let up.
“I get bothered by writers who just seem like they’re completely miserable people,” he said. “I want to be happy.
At tonight’s CD release show with Bobsled mates The Waxwings, the Chamber Strings will be accompanied by both brass and string sections. (“Month of Sundays” will be in stores March 27.)
After that, the band hits the road for what’s expected to be a year of touring. Although headline dates are anticipated, the band also will be playing opening slots for Wilco. Junior’s song “Make It Through The Summer” was partially written with Wilco bassist John Stirratt.
Like Wilco’s “Summerteeth” (Reprise), and the Flaming Lips’ “The Soft Bulletin” (Warner Bros.), The Chamber Strings are writing and playing challenging, melody-driven and emotional pop, which may be tough to define but is the most adventuresome music being made today. The reason is simple.
“Just a great song,” Junior said. “That’s the most important thing to me.”