Light Passing through Murky Waters

A Lull wasn’t happy with just putting out one album this year. In the vein of Portland indie-rockers Menomena, this Chicago quintet revisit their dense and dreamy experimentation with four tracks that show notable growth since their last release. An extension to May’s Confetti, here new songs have been mounted with high production value, letting their dynamic movement realize its full potential.

Thanks to pristine studio work, the band’s layered compositions of dark indie rock can expand in a space that is all the more engaging. Often, moments of rhythmic intensity dissipate into space to let intertwining voices float in emptiness before plunging once again into a cold lake of reverb as rays of light cut through its murky substructure. It’s a game of tension and release that persists for the whole record, moving from the hook-happy “Pot Luck” all the way to the meditative blackness of “The Pit.”

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Songs rise from percolating silence; bright melody adorns a framework of blurry lines; a peaceful chorale takes center-stage. The singing conjures lines that seem almost plucked from memory, finding familiarity in their simplicity. They pose questions about the future and bleed into haunting, rumbling rhythms to hunt for complex answers. Fuzz comes and goes, but there is an ever-present heaviness about this record, an ambient sediment setting the stage for percussive play and echoing synth. While there are moments of brightness on this record, it evokes a mood much deeper than its lengthier counterpart. This release runs about 20 minutes, with only the strongest of their palette invited. It will be something really special if the band can apply this kind of atmosphere and flow to a full LP.

To Serve The Song Above All Else

It's pretty common that bands known for technical ability will push the limits of their playing with each new release, but Chicago's Maps & Atlases latest work strives to flex both creative muscles and the ones in their fingers.

“I don't think we were ever heavy in any way,” said lead singer, guitarist and most bearded member Dave Davison when talking about how the band used to share the stage with the post-hardcore group Russian Circles. The band's early work bared the signs of math rock, but now Maps & Atlases more closely resemble a folk band.

Perch Patchwork came out last summer and was the band's first full-length offering, filled with rich, subtle instrumentation and an increased focus on Davison's voice. Being their debut LP, Maps & Atlases spent the time to make a cohesive piece of work that shows growth to a technically proficient musical palette.

“It was a really fun and productive way to allow the songs to take shape,” said Davison about the more experimental process to songwriting the band took with this record.

“On previous work with Maps & Atlases we would spend a long time getting ideas together to play live, and then the recording process became mostly a way of documenting that live experience,” he said.

“It was the prospect of recording and letting whatever happened happen, like if something started seeming a certain way or going in a different direction, to just allow it to go that way was only possible through this type of recording. It was really exciting for everybody in the band. Jason made everyone excited to explore more.”

Jason Cupp produced Perch Patchwork, and a warm, complex sound was formed – one which draws influence from as many directions as genres in their hometown music scene. Cupp worked with Davison in 2009 for his solo work under the name Cast Spells, and after exploring these new approaches to writing brought the artfully arranged sound to a full band context. The result builds off the Cast Spells EP, with engaging, unorthodox percussion and melodic form catchy enough for a pop song.

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“It was really fun, it was something that wouldn't have been possible before this time,” said Davison. “Making an album with as many intricacies as this one has would have cost a fortune. It would have had to be a totally different production 10 or 15 years ago, but we were able to do it in our practice space and in my parents' house, getting friends to help out with it.”

Horns and strings take up room formerly dominated by two-hand guitar tapping, but while they may have moved out from under the math rock label there has been no dumbing down of their sound. If anything, the complexities are now just more subtle, wound into the fabric of the song with great care.

“We had some idea prior going into it where strings and horns and whatnot would go, but it was my first time seriously working with instruments that I couldn't mess around with on my own,” said Davison. “It was definitely a trial and error process with that, there are so many interesting things that can be done with other instruments that you can't think of when you're thinking with a guitar.”

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“I think we've just gotten better at layering things and playing together more tightly where it doesn't seem crazy and random. Still, I think the most technical guitar parts live definitely are some of the newer songs,” he said. "Layering lots of different instruments hopefully allows someone to get more lost in the overall song rather than focusing specifically on what a guitar is doing.”

The band wants to avoid the feeling of isolated tracks playing together, instead arranging the record's many layers as complimentary elements.

“My most enjoyable musical experiences right now come from when I'm not necessarily identifying with the musicianship, but more with the music,” said Davison.

“Sometimes it can be difficult for me when I'm listening to somebody play the guitar really well, I'll switch into thinking about it in a more logical way rather than allowing myself to get lost in it, like [I do] with electronic or classical music.”

The band strives to serve the song, wherever it takes them. With their new composition style it could go anywhere, but it's too early to tell what the end result will be for any upcoming material.

“I have been continuously writing and recording stuff without necessarily trying to think about it in the context of what it's going to be,” said Davison. “There definitely is new material, but I'm not exactly sure in what way it's going to come out. I think we're at a weird place where it's hard to talk about what's going to happen next just because you don't want to necessarily think about it too much as far as the end result right now, more focus is on the process, the creative side of it.

“We don't have a specific political agenda or message, when you're writing from your experience you definitely feel excited when people can connect their experience to that, to have a positive association with the music,” he said. “I feel weird about overly contextualizing our music, telling people how to think about something. My strongest associations with music that means a lot to me I'm sure is 100% off from what the artist originally intended, and that doesn't really matter to me, on either side of it.”

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On the Road Again

These days, 'making it' has become an increasingly ambiguous term. Bands have to focus on what they love, and for Chicago psychedelic pop group Netherfriends the answer is pack up what you absolutely need and hit the road.

“The music industry's dead and everyone's kind of looking around like 'what are we supposed to do?'” said Shawn Rosenblatt, the creative force behind Netherfriends. He believes touring should be the band's priority.

“I think a lot of people are relying on the internet,” said Rosenblatt. “People have this really askew view about blogs bringing [bands] to a new level. I think that bands should be on the road if they really want to make a career of playing music.”

“I met someone recently and they knewNetherfriends because we played the Pitchfork festival,” he added. “He was like 'I would do anything to play the Pitchfork festival, that would be like the most incredible thing ever!' and I was like 'Yeah it was fun, but it didn't change my life or anything.' I still went back to the same thing I was doing, which is touring and recording.”

Rosenblatt writes and records almost everything in Netherfriends himself, bringing a couple friends along to flesh out his songs in a live setting.

“I was recording in Apple Valley, Minnesota, at my girlfriend at the time's parent's house. I had the whole house to myself for seven days and I recorded ten songs, and that's what [latest release] Barry & Sherry is."

Barry & Sherry is a combination of old and new sounds, a mix like 60's chillwave with a hint of early Pink Floyd psychedelia. The production sound is big, something Rosenblatt aims to replicate live.

“I do a lot of live looping with my voice so it sounds like there are multiple people singing, and I have this sampler that plays kind of ambient noises that fill out the sound as well,” said Rosenblatt. “I don't want to replicate exactly what I'm doing on the recording but I do try to do it justice as much as I can.”

“I'm really into the idea of neo-psychedelic pop sound where it's kind of fusing the ideas of 60s pop with new ideas,” he continued. “I'm a big fan of Caribou, I love all of his records... That one record Andorra is the epitome of what I love about new psychedelic pop.”

Netherfriends are currently touring the southern United States, where Rosenblatt is continuing a project to write and record a song in each of the 50 states. But for Netherfriends it's all about executing the material onstage.

“I'm kind of fed up with bands that are spending all this time at home recording and not playing any shows – when no one's buying to begin with,” said Rosenblatt. “I don't understand why you're spending all this money to record for no one... I mean, you're not Radiohead.”