Whenever indie rock has veered too close to becoming like a traditional form of music -- whether it's by-the-book Class of '77 punk, emo with sanctioned sad chords, press-the-distortion-pedal-here grunge, or power-pop that eschews anything Big Star or Cheap Trick hasn't already tackled -- that's when it's failed us as an alternative. Indie rock should be incendiary, but it also needs to charm in order to transcend cultdom and insinuate itself into pop culture. And it's gotta bring with it the thrill of discovery. No one's asking anybody to reinvent the wheel, but make it roll in a different direction and people will remember you for ages.
And that goes for The M's, a band named for the 13th letter of the alphabet and born out of happy accidents. A year before even officially becoming a band, Josh Chicoine, Robert Hicks, Joey King, and Steve Versaw holed themselves up in a Chicago basement, recording songs for the hell of it, with no thought of an outcome or even a desired sound. Hicks and Versaw had played in an emo outfit for a time, while Chicoine played in a jam band, experiences that inform The M's oeuvre not an iota. They had no idea that the first brace of songs would turn into an EP, and that after recording songs for two successive EP sessions, these best first impressions would all be drafted to duty as The M's first album.
Or that this would lead to Future Women, an album so assured and so right on so many levels, critics are liable to enshrine it on a year's best list now and forget about looking for any other comers.
Scheduled to perform on Monday, April 17
Josh Chicoine is one of three main vocalists in the band, making The M's something of a Fleetwood Mac in indie rock, where most bands have one point man at all times. Ironically, the Mac came up when the talk turned to recording and the fact that Rumours, a flawless yet relatively straightforward-sounding album, was one of the most expensive of all time because every note was flown in from a separate take and that virtually nothing on it was recorded at the same time.
"That's ridiculous," says Chicoine. "Well, there's parts of that idea that are kind of cool. Flaming Lips have done stuff like that, but for different reasons. But [Fleetwood Mac] should've been able to play that in the studio live."
He adds, "That's one of the things that's sorta off-putting about pop music now. Everything is so perfect. You hear about these records that are $400,000 or something ridiculous like that to make, and what it is is that it's mixed by committee, and has all these producers and all these other people are in there saying, 'Oh, no.' And they spend a whole day trying to get a drum sound. That's just too much time and money being misspent."
In thrifty contrast, Future Women cost the band all of $3,500. The M's first album, recorded entirely at home, cost even less.
"There was nobody knocking down our door on the last record, so we just did what we wanted to do. We didn't even have the money to even worry about it," says Chicoine.
This aesthetic carried over to the new record, even though The M's fabled home studio -- located in an exotic-sounding Chicago neighborhood called Ukrainian Village, and where the entire band minus Chicoine lived for a few years -- didn't survive beyond Future Women's demo stage. Last year, the band was forced out of its workspace by city planners. "It was more like a clubhouse and less like a sitcom," says drummer and M's resident recording engineer Steve Versaw of the near Monkees-like living arrangement. "There were lots and lots of nights where we passed out there, whether we were on the lease or not. Top of the World was the name of the house/studio, and it will be missed but not forgotten."
One of the lessons learned at that locale was the art of letting go. Chicoine remembers losing a few songs to a crashed drive on a 16-track hard disk. "We ended up having to use different rough mixes of two songs ["Riverside" and "Holdin Up"]," he says. "The songs shine no matter what. We just figured, 'Well, that's that and now it's over, so put it out; don't be scared trying to put your absolute best foot forward all the time. Just be worried about writing songs continuously, don't review it under a magnifying glass.'"
Critics have been closely scrutinizing the band's roots since day one, and continue to find favorable analogies to rock's glorious past. While Hicks' wispy gentility does recall a double-tracked Marc Bolan on occasion, and The M's expansive octave range of low and high vocals is not dissimilar to Ray and Dave Davies' brotherly blend, this record sounds modern enough that the band members are more flattered than hamstrung by spotted influences. "There's been a lot written about this record -- we get the same T. Rex and Kinks comparisons as the last one, but there's other stuff, too. They're referencing like Mott the Hoople or Nuggets or Tito Puente," Chicoine says, laughing.
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That last tip of the hat is a masterful song called "Trucker Speed," which mates mambo beats to the sounds of unground wire buzzes and feedback turned conspicuously up, like Eno's strategy cards were being employed. About three-quarters through, the chain-saw guitars are pulled back to reveal horns and a string quartet, which dovetail nicely into the lullabyish "Light I Love." It's a thrilling ride, made even better by the heart-racing album opener, "Plan of the Man," and climaxed with the epic and exquisite "Darling Lucia," a suite as gorgeous as something McCartney might've concocted on a good day.
With "Plan of the Man" featured in a recent episode of The O.C. , a profile in Spin, and a video for the title track directed by Jonathan Demme, things seem to be going The M's way. "I dunno, we've got all our ducks in a row for this record," agrees Chicoine.
Now if they only had an easier name to Web search. The band's new URL is the-ms.com, to save you some time -- otherwise you'll be learning less about Chicago's newest buzz band and a lot more about Ms. magazine, multiple sclerosis, the Seattle Mariners, Van Morrison and Them's first album, and that guy who sang "Pop Muzik." His name, incidentally, was "M." Somebody ought to tell him to surrender that consonant. He's had it for two decades and, well, we've got better uses for it now.