REVIEW: Molly Burch at Schubas

by Eileen Marshall

KEVIN ALLEN

KEVIN ALLEN

It's hard to know what to say about Molly Burch. Her music rather goes without saying; it doesn't require any special interpretive framework. Hear thirty seconds of Burch's recently-released debut album, Please Be Mine, and you'll know what you're dealing with: love and longing, laid out in the mode of pop-country singers and "girl groups" of the fifties and sixties. Reviews of the album invariably describe it as "nostalgic" or "retro", which is accurate, to a point. But Burch's work isn't merely an homage to a past era; it's a new entry in a tradition that feels timeless.

A beautiful voice never gets old, and Burch's voice is her chief asset. In the live setting, Burch sings with the same practiced ease that you hear on the record. This isn’t surprising considering that she and her band recorded most of Please Be Mine live in a single day at the studio.

Singing came before songwriting for Burch, and when she eventually did start writing, it was with the goal of crafting songs that would suit her voice, she says. In this she's surely succeeded: both on the record and in her live performances, Burch's striking range is on display. Equally powerful in high and low registers, she swoops from a delicate warble to an emphatic shout with confidence and grace. It's the kind of vocal skill that makes you forget that singing is hard work.

KEVIN ALLEN

KEVIN ALLEN

Though you'd be forgiven for mistaking Please Be Mine for the product of an earlier time, her Schubas set featured arrangements that belied the impression of temporal displacement. Lead guitarist Dailey Toliver's solos pointed to more modern influences with their harsh frenzy, their buzz and growl. These moments were a highlight, and a good reason to see Burch and her band play live, rather than just sticking to the record. Hearing Burch work her vocal magic in person is, of course, another compelling reason.

Then there's the intimacy that comes with being in a room with Burch while she performs material that is personal and raw. Burch's lyrics are about rejection from both sides; she sings of desire and regret, always vulnerable and aching.

The album's title track, with which Burch opened her set at Schubas, is an abject supplication. After breaking up with her partner, Burch hopes for a reconciliation she doesn't feel she deserves: "I'd love a hand to hold / Is yours still for me? / I know I don't deserve you back," she sings. The song's chorus is plain and to the point, repeating, "Please be mine," in a drawn-out, heartrending wail. Her set's next song, "Please Forgive Me,” runs along the same lines, as its title would suggest.

From there, Burch played a couple of her more upbeat songs, "Wrong for You" and "Try," before setting aside her guitar to focus solely on the vocals for "Loneliest Heart" and "I Love You Still,” two slower ballads. Self-denigration colors all of these songs, as Burch chastises herself for hurting her beloved—like Fiona Apple, Burch has been a bad, bad girl—and promises from now on to exercise not just kindness and care, but also meek obedience. "I'll be your pet," she sings on "I Love You Still", an image she repeats in two other songs. It's a typically feminine attitude that recalls old songs performed by jazz singers like Billie Holiday, whom Burch cites as a major influence.

But there are moments where Burch affirms her self-worth. On "Downhearted,” one of her stronger songs and the one she chose to close out her set at Schubas, she sings, "I know there is much more to me than thinking about you / I've got a lot to give, I know that this is true." There's a push and pull between subordinating herself entirely to her love and asserting her independent value. These themes aren’t new, but they bear revisiting; Burch’s take on them is skillful and moving.

Burch continues her US tour supporting Sallie Ford through April, before heading to Europe in May and June.

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.

Mothers Open For Frightened Rabbit at Thalia Hall

Photo by  Kristin Karch  

Photo by Kristin Karch 

By Eileen Marshall

This was a Lollapalooza aftershow, and so it didn't start until 11pm at night; I work nine to five, which my body resists; by Thursday night, I'm tired, so Mothers was my main focus that night.

I did look up Frightened Rabbit’s recent set lists. While I haven't kept up with them, I thought I would have liked to hear "The Modern Leper", a song that wrecked me on the regular back in college. They do still play it, sometimes early in the show, sometimes late; so it was kind of a toss-up.

Frightened Rabbit's songs, including the one I most wanted to hear, are about that tension between understanding and enabling when two troubled people become intimate. From "The Modern Leper":
 

Well is that you in front of me
Coming back for even more of exactly the same?
You must be a masochist to love a modern leper on his last leg
Well I am ill, but I’m not dead
And I don’t know which of those I prefer.
 

I thought about this, and I thought about Mothers' music, how it treats the same subjects, and how the pairing of these two bands made a lot of sense. 

Mothers' debut album, When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired, is one of my favorites released so far this year, but it’s hard for me to write about it, because listening to it rips me to shreds. Like Frightened Rabbit’s, singer/songwriter/guitarist Kristine Leschper’s lyrics center on self-loathing, on mental illness or something like it. They describe feelings of inferiority relative to one’s partner: for example, in “Burden of Proof”, with which the band opened their set last Thursday, Leschper sings, “Everything you touch turns to gold / Everything I touch turns away,” stretching the syllables into something aching, wailing. But the songs also insinuate a dynamic of abuse, suggesting that their “you” has some problems, too. "I cut out my tongue / Seeing yours would speak for the both of us"—these lines conclude "Lockjaw", one of the album's stand-out tracks. "Nesting Behavior" also ends with self-deprecation in which an accusation is embedded: "You always made it easy / Reminding me not to bloom." But the album's last words express a tentative hope of rising from the ashes stronger and kinder: "I burned up all my songs / And left them out for the dogs / I think I could learn to love."

As live performers, Leschper and her band are skilled and appear to know it. Presumably, many members of the audience that night had spent that day at the festival, likely hitting up its bars a few times; they came primarily or solely for Frightened Rabbit, and it showed. Opening for a better-known act is of course a crucial way for new artists to gain exposure. Mothers maintained a steady and confident professionalism despite the persistent crowd chatter; their set was brief but by no means a throwaway.

Even though softer songs, like the aforementioned "Burden of Proof", struggled to overpower the crowd's loudness; others, like "Copper Mines", fared better, with their revved-up tempos and more assertive rock style. Particularly impressive was the band members' success in coordinating tempo shifts with barely a glance at one another. Their setup is a standard four-piece rock band's, built of crashing drums offset by guitars that zigzag and ping like pinballs. It's reminiscent of Palm, who opened for Mothers when I saw them the first time back in May, and Ought. Leschper's vocals round out the sound: if Tom Waits or Bob Dylan has a voice like steel wool, perhaps Leschper's is the inverse, softness shaped into something hard and gleaming. It's beautiful, haunting.

Buy or stream When You Walk A Long Distance You Are Tired. See Mothers live.