On the Rock: Cass Cwik Offers a Fine New Voice to the Chicago Music Scene

Courtesy of  Dumpster Tapes

Courtesy of Dumpster Tapes

“I’m constantly recording; it’s almost a problem.” This was the response I got from Cass Cwik when I asked him about his music-making habits and history. The 27-year-old Chicagoland native’s been at it since childhood, writing and recording, alone and with friends, on family computers and four-track machines; now his debut EP’s been released on Chicago’s promising Dumpster Tapes label. And it’s good to have it at last.

The seven songs that make up On the Rock, which came out in June, fit in pretty well with the local indie rock scene in general, and with Cwik’s labelmates in particular. With local acts like Cafe Racer and Varsity, Cwik shares a penchant for fuzzy, catchy pop songs that draw on sixties psych-pop and nineties-to-now indie alike. It’s not a unique mode, but Cwik's work is done well, and for fans and followers of Chicago music, it’s definitely worth a listen.

Cwik traces his musical roots back to an adolescent interest in American folk music and UK pop/rock bands of the sixties. These influences show: his simple, sunny melodies and cozy guitars recall the Byrds and early Stones, and a touch of the psychedelic harks back to Revolver-era Beatles, Syd Barrett’s Floyd, and Donovan. Cwik professes a long-lived love for Dylan, crediting the prolific folk-to-rock-to-jazz mastermind with teaching him much of what he knows about songwriting. Opening track “On the Evening Rock” does remind one of brighter Dylan songs like “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”, up to a touch of harmonica that feels refreshingly nostalgic.

As for more recent artists, Cwik’s sound is at times akin to the Deerhunter of Halcyon Digest (but without the darkness), or early Car Seat Headrest (but without the literary fixation). The vocals are hazy; guitars are crisp and melodic. And again, Cwik cites the Chicago music community as a perennial inspiration, characterizing it as “supportive and creatively driven in the best way.”

Photo by Ellie Rutledge

Photo by Ellie Rutledge

Narratively, On the Rock traces the arc of a relationship, from the love-happy bounce of its first track, to the desolate self-indictment of “Cannot Say”, which finishes out the record. Throughout, the lyrics are simple, introspective, occasionally heart-piercing. A rocky-shore metaphor ties it all together: we “lay it down easy on the evening rock” with the lover, who by the EP’s midpoint inevitably comes to “keep [us] on the rocks/ in a state of shock” rather than invite us into the comfort of their bed. Finally, “Cannot Say” relates heartbreak with no one to blame but oneself: “It’s not your fault I feel uneven/ I took a dive in a shallow bay.” (Frankly, I don’t listen to a lot of music by men these days; so, after some apprehension over the second song, titled “You’re a Sign”, I was relieved to land on the concluding track and its refusal to pin the male lover’s sorrow on the conscience of the love object.) The lyrics lack the poeticism of a Dylan, and they don’t match the inventiveness of someone like Syd Barrett; but they tell a story effectively and with feeling, and though it’s a story often told, it’s one we never seem to tire of hearing.

You can stream On the Rock, or buy the tape, on Dumpster Tapes’s Bandcamp page; keep up with Cwik by following his personal page, too. And, if you’re in Chicago, check out one of his upcoming shows: the next is September 15 at the Burlington, in Logan Square. Watch his Facebook page for updates.