by David Raposa
Saturday’s Northside Festival show at Europa will showcase four well-traveled acts from far-flung corners of the indie-rock diaspora: Eleanor Friedberger, Ida, Rebecca Gates, and Pete Nolan. The bill’s highest-profile member is also the only one with an album scheduled to come out in the near future; Eleanor Friedberger‘s Merge debut, Past Summer, is due out later this year. If you haven’t already, check out the video for “My Mistakes” that came out earlier this week. It’s the sort of pleasantly plainspoken yet off-kilter tune that the Fiery Furnaces could seemingly conjure up at will, as the group’s debut (Gallowsbird’s Bark) and 2009’s I’m Going Away ably demonstrate. “Tropical Ice-Land”!
Unfortunately for folks who wanted that sort of grounded songcraft on a regular basis, the music that Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger made often aimed to disappoint on that front. If the group wasn’t busy frenetically switching gears and genres mid-song, then they were rope-a-doping unsuspecting listeners with impenetrable album-long conceits that might or might not have involved other members of their family. For the Fiery Furnaces, consistency is a dirty word; it’s only fitting that one of their most approachable full-lengths is A) titled EP, and B) actually a B-sides compilation. If you could roll with the punches, however, challenging records like Blueberry Boat would reward your patience. And every once in a while, the group would let a charmer like Bitter Tea‘s “My Egyptian Grammar” out into the world:
Ida‘s been an ongoing concern since the mid-1990s, back when the group consisted of NYC-area folk-singer Elizabeth Mitchell (formerly in a duo with Lisa Loeb) and DC-area punk-rocker Daniel Littleton (formerly in proto-emo group The Hated) singing sweet little everythings into their four-track. If you want the best Ida album, go for 1996’s I Know About You. With Daniel’s brother Michael “Miggy” Littleton joining in on the drums, the now-trio managed to take the best of both Mitchell’s and Littleton’s musical worlds and (with the help of Rick Lassiter on bass and behind the boards) create something uniquely their own, a record that Paul Simon might’ve made if he visited Spiderland instead of Graceland. This live recording of “Tellings” (from 1996) might not do the song justice, but it’s a great showcase for Mitchell’s gorgeous voice.
Albums like I Know About You and Will You Find Me (a record made back when the band was briefly under contract with Capitol Records, and the final record made with Miggy) feature the group at the height of their powers, while the records they’ve released for big-indie Polyvinyl find the group comfortable in their own skin. All these records focus on the more earnest and serious side of the band, and don’t do justice to how charming they are live. The band’s released a handful of small-run live recording, but the only studio album to do right by their playful side is Ten Small Paces, a patchwork record combining various recording sessions of varying fidelity, featuring both instrumentals and wordy songs, and making strange bedfellows out of Brian Eno and Bill Monroe. It’s also relentlessly charming, with the group letting it all hang out in the best possible way. Highlights abound—a Casiotoned run through Eno’s “Golden Hours,” “Broken Arrow” (a songwriting contribution from then-new bassist Karla Schickele), the withering Mitchell-sung kiss-off “Purely Coincidental,” and the shimmering “Dream Date”:
The bad news: despite being a working musician for nearly two decades, there’s not much Rebecca Gates music out there for consumption. The good news: what little music there is (a handful of Spinanes releases, and one solo EP) to have is of the highest quality. If you’re in the mood to just listen to two folks (Gates and current Built To Spill drummer Scott Plouf) kick out deceptively simple jams and generally rip shit up, there’s Manos, the Spinanes’ full-length debut, and The Imp Years, a collection of the group’s pre-Manos singles. If you want to hear what happens when said duo decides to spread its wings and utilize the studio as a third member of the band, there’s the atmospheric and expansive Strand. And if you want to know what happens when the leader of said duo decides to work with a bunch of notable Chicago-area musicians (Tortoise’s John McEntire and Sam Prekop of Sea & Cake fame, among others) and filter R&B and soul music through her sensibilities, then take a listen to Arches & Aisles, and give yourself plenty of room to cut a rug when “Kid In Candy” starts up.
Gates’ first post-Spinanes release, the Ruby Series EP, follows promisingly in the sultry footsteps of Arches & Aisles, but has turned out to be the worst kind of tease; excepting a few compilation appearances, it’s the last music she’s released in the past decade. Having spent that time co-curating sonic art installations and prepping an audio magazine for launch (among other things), she’s finally leaked news of two upcoming albums: a compilation of Ruby Series remixes, and an upcoming full-length titled The Float. No doubt she’ll be giving lucky attendees a sneak peak of what that album has to offer. In the meantime, here’s a live clip of Gates and her Consortium performing a Ruby Series track, “The Seldom Scene”:
(Apologies to Magik Markers’ Pete Nolan, whose solo project Spectre Folk actually kicks off the evening’s festivities, but trying to do justice to the group’s voluminous discography probably requires its own dedicated blog. That said, if anyone reading this hasn’t given 2009’s Balf Quarry a listen, it’d be worth fixing that omission.)
Eleanor Friedberger, Ida, Rebecca Gates, and Pete Nolan perform at Europa Nightclub on June 18 as part of the Northside Festival. Note: This show was originally scheduled to take place at St. Cecilia’s Church.