Turn of the ‘Century’

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

The 1900s writing next chapter in their history with new lineup, harmonies and recording methods

December 3, 2010

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

To say you are a member of the band the 1900s once meant you didn’t have much “me” time.

For almost four years, seven people shared the small confines of the band’s studio room, touring van and club stages. But despite almost universal media accolades and tours that paired the band with Iron & Wine, Black Mountain and many others, the Chicago band ultimately hit a roadblock, resulting in changes both in personnel and its way of making music. Both evolutions ended up invigorating, not destroying, the creative process and led to the band’s best chapter to date.

“Return of the Century” (Parasol Records) turns away from the six-minute songs and lush psychedelics of the 1900s’ 2007 debut to embrace shorter melodies that don’t stay as long but leave a much deeper impression. Rather than swaying the listener with overborne arrangements, The songs are pared back to just the essentials: rippling guitars, piano, a violin, bass and drums. Songwriter and vocalist Edward Anderson says he wanted to make a “more feminine record” and in doing so capitalizes on the vocals of Caroline Donovan and Jeanine O’Toole, whose lead and harmony work plays a greater role than before.

“Make it short and sweet,” was the mission, says Donovan, 32. “We’ve gone through a lot of changes and in that way, it felt more natural to try something different.”

The 1900s came together in 2004 when Anderson, a veteran of Chicago’s indie scene who grew up in Palos Hills, wanted to put together a new band but realized it would benefit from female voices. He met Donovan and O’Toole at a party and invited them to audition. They had little experience singing in a band setting, but their musical experience ran deep. They started harmonizing together back in orchestral choruses as students at Mother McAuley Liberal Arts High School on the Southwest Side. Hired after an audition, both singers helped contribute to a band sound that immediately stood out in Chicago; the interchanging vocals among the three singers and the wistful pop sensibilities is more aligned with U.K. pop favorites Belle and Sebastian, Teenage Fanclub, Canada’s Sloan and Australia’s Go-Betweens.

“When we toured with [U.K. indie pop favorite] British Sea Power, everyone in the band and the crew, all these British people, were telling us, ‘You have to go to England. People would really like you over there,’” Anderson, 32, says. “Easier said than done, especially with six people. But we’re trying.”

After a long stretch of touring, which included playing Lollapalooza before their first record was even issued, the band returned to Chicago and assessed the next chapter. After trimming the lineup down to six and switching drummers, Anderson had an opportunity to figure out a new way of writing songs. The solution was to not get so wrapped up in “every little last piece of orchestration” and instead let songs gestate — for months if they had to — resulting in demos that today sound many evolutions away from the final result.

Although the band recorded the bulk of the album in two professional studios, Anderson did segment some of the recording time into an extra bedroom of the Logan Square apartment he shares with Donovan. The home space gave him time to jump into recording if inspiration summoned.

“You can’t just manufacture the right moment,” he says. “When you have everything at your house and you can work on whatever you feel like working on, you can throw on a guitar when it’s the right moment.”

The process took about two years. Anderson and the band were generous with time because they wanted to make sure that the second album was cleansed of any “cringe moments” that might show up two years later.

“I’d huddle up in the winter every day, losing track of friends, not going out. I don’t know if I could do that again. It was just too much. I hope people like this one because I don’t know if I have another one in my for a while,” Anderson says, with a laugh.

“Return of the Century” also allowed the band, which includes founding bassist Charlie Ransford, the chance to step into new roles. Donovan says the changes are re-engaging their live shows.

Losing their multi-instrumentalist meant Donovan is now playing keyboards and Andra Kulans, whose violin playing is muted this time out, is playing guitar.

“I feel like everyone onstage is more involved,” Donovan says. “It’s more fun for us, too.”

As it turns out, all those Belle and Sebastian comparisons have paid off. The Scottish band invited the 1900s to play “Bowlie 2,” a three-day British music festival the band is curating later this month that will feature the New Pornographers, Julian Cope, the Go! Team, St. Etienne and the Zombies, among many others. The appearance will be the Chicago band’s European debut.

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