After 20 years, Thrill Jockey is still nearly synonymous with the Chicago mid-’90s post-rock scene – an avant-garde crew that in broad terms includes Tortoise, Trans Am and the Sea And Cake. The imprint has also been home to a variety of artists whose output tends toward challenging, unconventional and sometimes experimental sounds. And so it’s somewhat surprising when label owner Bettina Richards mentions the uniting factor among her stable of artists.
“The commonality among the artists, to me, is a love of melody – no matter how obtuse,” she says. “It is always there.”
Richards has been unearthing melody, innovation and noise since the late ’80s, when she worked as an A&R rep at major labels; she helped sign the Meat Puppets to London Records, and brought the Lemonheads and Eleventh Dream Day to Atlantic. Frustrated by the inflexibility of large corporations, Richards jumped ship and started her own label in 1992 while working at a Hoboken record store. But she remained smitten with Eleventh Dream Day, and Thrill Jockey would eventually release (and even re-release) the band’s music.
“Eleventh Dream Day, at the time that I first encountered them (circa 1988 debut <em>Prairie School Freakout</em>), had this great tension between their guitars – a love of the crispy, burnt guitar tones that are also beloved by Neil Young,” says Richards. “They had an urgency and an ability to tell a story. They are a band that is <em>all</em> in live, even after all these years.”
In 1995, Richards’s move to Chicago brought not only a change of environment and cheaper rent, it positioned Thrill Jockey to be the conduit for a cadre of mostly instrumental, jazz-influenced bands that would be labeled “post-rock.” (For the record, Richards does not comprehend the term as a musical descriptor, but doesn’t mind the attention it brought to the bands and label.) The historic moment arrived with Tortoise’s <em>Millions Now Living Will Never Die</em>. Richards recalls hearing the album for the first time in Tortoise’s loft studio.
“My memory is really of sitting behind John McEntire listening to ‘The Taut And Tame’ and letting the mind melt begin. I recognized the greatness and the innovation at once. I was giddy.”
Although Thrill Jockey holds tight to the identity it formed in the ’90s – Richards’s favorite office totem is a photo behind her desk of Gaunt singer/guitarist Jerry Wick, who was killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle in 2001 – the last decade or so has been characterized by decidedly unprovincial decisions. Working with artists from Kenya, Sweden, Mali, Japan, Austria and Germany has expanded not only Thrill Jockey’s horizons, but those of indie rock at large. Not surprisingly, Thrill Jockey’s breadth – the baker’s dozen releases below ranges from minimalist electronica to Kenyan benga music, and still excludes large stylistic swaths of the catalog – is symptomatic of Richards’s own affliction.
“I am a hopeless record addict,” says Richards. “I buy new or used records every week. I am sure one day I will be on the news: ‘Lady found in an apartment so filled with records she could not find her stereo.’”
Beautiful, imposing, complex and impossible to understand – Millions Now Living is like Ulysses or Tree of Life or a French exchange student. The album reflects Chicago's obsession with modernism, the appropriation of old and sometimes obscure forms (krautrock, minimalism, dub, musique concrete) bent into new shapes. It's symptomatic of a citywide aesthetic: If you can't see that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot stood on the shoulders of Millions Now Living, may Ditka have mercy on your soul. Critics were extolling this album's importance almost upon its release in 1997, and they were mostly correct about its mathematical elegance, sonic detail, and how 21-minute opener "Djed" might be the best album side of the decade. What's less well-documented is how many stoner epiphanies will alight from your speakers, as angels from Heaven or Humboldt Park.
Pioneers of the ironic mustache and cheeky proponents of retro-futurism, Trans Am tend to get snickered off the post-rock dais. Truth be told, there can be a Sprockets-like element to the krautrocking sounds put forth by this Washington, D.C., trio – a vocoder-filled vein that Stereolab never touched. But the very notion that humor would have no place in the millennial indie-rock landscape is a pretty bleak situation. 2000 double album Red Line represents the full range of Trans Am's power, from Queens of the Stone Age-style rock with vocals ("Play In The Summer") to primetime '70s prog ("Lunar Landing"). Few bands in history have simultaneously been this weird, arty and heavy.
This is what a lost weekend in Chicago, circa 1996, sounded like. Former Tortoise member Bundy K. Brown summoned drummer Doug Scharin (Rex, June of 44, HIM, Codeine) and guitarist James Warden to Idful Studios to cut eight untitled instrumentals over two days and release them into the world under a Miles Davis-styled moniker. Directions in Music is a little-known gem in the catalog and the dark horse on this list, a testament to the raw creativity and collaboration among these musicians. The album seems to consist of three movements, with the pair of opening numbers ("Untitled 1" and "Untitled 2") focused on Scharin's master-class percussion; tracks 3-5 bringing in rolling, pastoral guitar melodies; and tracks 6-8 providing long tonal stretches and psychedelic space-outs. Even listeners who are uninterested in post-rock or instrumental music will be engaged by this album's guitar hooks and generally brisk pace.
Japanese composer Nobukazu Takemura made his name in American indie-rock circles as a remixer, deconstructor and collaborator with the likes of Tortoise, Yo La Tengo and DJ Spooky. When left to his own devices, as on 1999's Scope, he can still be heard dealing in pastiche, arranging discrete sounds – speaker-panning blips, buzzes and clicks – that are sometimes connected by melody and sometimes just left to bask in the wide-open spaces of musique concrete. Scope is an appropriate title; the album ranges from the soft, bell-choir "Kepler" to the queasy, subsonic electronics of "Taw" to the ping-ponging, melting-Casio lullaby "Tiddler." For a supposedly minimalist composer, that's quite a maximalist thing to do.
As any practiced insomniac will tell you, the human body can go for about 30 hours straight before things start getting weird. At that point, your ears get choosy, your voice drops to a slurred cackle, and your brain pops with the sort of deep-moored emotions that'll keep you awake for another half-day or so. It's a sensation both euphoric and disorienting, and it's evoked frequently on this Baltimore trio's gorgeously murky third effort.
Led by frontman Sam Herring, a troubled-mind wordsmith with a soulful growl, Future Islands merge synth-rock bombast with post-punk jitter. "Long Flight" and "Inch of Dust" are both hazy colossuses, pile-ons of drum-machine tick-tocks, airy keyboards and Herring's sinuous vocals, which switch from effete to engorged and back again. But the stand-out here is "Tin Man," a post-breakup gut-pour that finds Herring pleading over twinkling steel drums and blurry power chords: "You couldn't possibly know how much you mean to me," Herring sings in a gnarled choke. "You couldn't possibly look inside my tarot." Like much of In Evening Air, it's bleak and beautiful, the sort of track that inspires dreams or nightmares — assuming you can get to sleep in the first place.
"No longer a slave of ambition,
I laugh at the world and its shams,
And I think of my happy condition,
Surrounded by acres of clams."
– Francis D. Henry, 1874
The Fiery Furnaces spent their early career trying to go over the goldheart mountaintops built by the Who, the Sparks and Guided By Voices, to varying degrees of survival. In songwriter and lyricist Matthew Friedberger's zeal to fire every musical synapse, there have been rock operatics, overstuffed concepts, a few genius lessons and at least one plain old terrible choice (2005's mostly spoken-word grandmother album Rehearsing My Choir). Your safest point of entry into the Fiery Furnaces' bulimic file cabinet of musical vignettes and quick-change songwriting is 2007's Widow City. Comfortable in the riffage and rancor of '70s rock, Matthew Friedberger has laid out his most playful set of songs for his unflappable sister Eleanor to sing; finely detailed narratives about escaping cults ("Ex-Guru"), making moonshine ("Navy Nurse") and so many loose-thread hallucinations that a coherent theme is thankfully, mercifully out of the question.
Thrill Jockey's roster was practically populated by the Eleventh Dream Day diaspora, even though it's sometimes difficult to hear the resemblance among the various offspring. EDD drummer Janet Beveridge Bean begat the folky Freakwater, bassist Doug McCombs begat Tortoise, and singer/guitarist Rick Rizzo laid down some albums with Antietam's Tara Key. When Thrill Jockey reissued 1988 full-length debut Prairie School Freakout, it offered a visceral look at indie rock's predawn. These 10 breakneck songs – recorded in just six hours – sound like a mythical meeting of Peter Buck's brittle rhythm playing and J Mascis's searing leads, churning out slightly countrified, road-worn punk. When the voices of Rizzo and Bean collide, they produce a John Doe/Exene Cervenka skewed harmony that can blow the hipped roof off a Frank Lloyd Wright house. This 2003 reissue appends the follow-up Wayne EP, which imbues a Neil Young song with even more ragged glory.
Uh-oh. Here come the real Germans. The likes of Tortoise and Trans Am may dabble in Germany's musical history when they lock into the motorik rhythms of krautrock, but Dusseldorf's Mouse On Mars always seems to be a decade or so ahead of everyone else. The duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner are often found exploring the far corners of electronic music, effectively moving the map toward some glitchy new frontier or another. This constant quest for original-sounding clicks, hisses and tones can be android's work, but 2004's Radical Connector is positively alive and definitively human. Joined by drummer Dodo NKishi and female vocalist Niobe, Mouse On Mars finally reports to the dancefloor; standout "Wipe That Sound" is a pop hit on a mechanical production line (shades of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit"), a benchmark in German engineering.
Thrill Jockey's foray into spooky psychedelia couldn't ask for better spirit guides than these three brothers from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Jennings, Van and Lain Carney recorded Sun On Sun in a log cabin, and from the sound of it, Jim Morrison is alive and well inside the Black Lodge, and the Bookhouse Boys just haven't got a clue. When Pontiak isn't evoking the Misfits in a K hole ("Shell Skull") or filling a track with ghost-ship sounds ("Swell"), they're doing an excellent job of resurrecting the Doors, burning any dashikis that may still be clinging to the skeletons, and making them walk the Earth as a sinister stoner-rock outfit adept at both blacklight riffing and country death songs.
How Thrill Jockey came to release albums by a Kenyan-American band playing a hybrid of African benga music and rock is less a tale of globetrotting discovery than a consequence of the pocket-sized indie-rock Rolodex. There was a band called Golden, featuring members of Weird War and Trans Am, whose frontman (Ian Eagleson) happened to be an ethnomusicologist; that group morphed into Extra Golden, shedding a couple American members and adding two Kenyan musicians. Naturally, it took a few albums for the formula to gel. On third album Thank You Very Quickly, the mixture of percussion and guitars, and English and Swahili vocals, had set. There are grooves galore, but none deeper than those on the honey-toned ballad "Ukimwi."
John Fahey is a lot like Jesus because both men had beards and left behind a lot of disciples. But only Fahey really liked Chinese food and can claim responsibility for a 21st-century uptick in instrumental guitar music by artists such as Glenn Jones, Sir Richard Bishop, James Blackshaw and Jack Rose. Rose died of a heart attack at age 38 in December 2009, mere months before the release of Luck In The Valley, his Thrill Jockey debut. It is an album filled with country raga drones, barnstorming fiddles, old blues songs and an entirely original, finely crafted reconstruction of the cradle of American music.
Sleater-Kinney used to sing about wanting to be your Joey Ramone – allow us to nominate Thalia Zedek as your Patti Smith. For label proprietor Bettina Richards, Zedek already has the job. One of Richards' dreams at the outset was to release albums by Come, Zedek's '90s band with drummer Chris Brokaw. Zedek has showcased her weather-beaten vocals in front of a variety of musical backdrops, ranging from avant-punk to cabaret, but the gritty folk-rock and plush viola of Liars And Prayers best suits her desolation-row lyrics. An album whose themes are equally applicable to love and war, Zedek proves she's not exactly an optimist or a romantic ("I just never imagined I'd still be forgiving you for so long," she sings on "Circa The End"). When she unleashes a meandering, Silkworm-style guitar solo in the middle of "Wind," however, it's obvious there are still some things worth believing in.
A true novelty in 1994, The Sea And Cake's self-titled debut arrived on a breeze of bubbly vibraphone, skittering jazz rhythms and lightly flecked Caribbean melodies. It didn't so much fly in the face of the '90s grunge movement – not that old trope again – as offer a fizzy, chilled drink in the shade. Among the grown-ups. At dinner parties and on Sunday mornings. The Chicago outfit is closer to a supergroup than any other band in the Thrill Jockey stable, boasting Tortoise's John McEntire, Shrimp Boat's Eric Claridge and Sam Prekop, and the Coctails' Archer Prewitt. Three of the four band members are accomplished visual artists, and the fourth (McEntire) would be a wizard at needlepoint if he weren't so busy producing albums for every other band in the city. The Sea And Cake is merely ginger on the palate; arguments can be made for 2000's Oui as the group's finest moment, and Prekop's solo albums are outstanding variations on the Sea And Cake's pastel-colored mood.