After ten months in Champaign-Urbana and seven months as a Smile Politely music writer, I'm finally starting to feel at home with the local music scene. Since the overlap in neuroscience grad students and local music lovers consists mostly of me, during my first months in town I spent a lot of time going to shows alone. My solo adventures took me to a few familiar places, mostly to see familiar faces. But along with all the predictably excellent shows I've seen — Andrew Bird at Foellinger, The Walkmen at Krannert, St. Vincent at the High Dive, Lucero at Canopy — I've had the fortune of stumbling into a few surprises as well. Heyokas's (now Sun Stereo) explosive delight of a set in Mike n' Molly's upstairs room, the Delta Kings show that got townies and students alike dancing around at The Rose Bowl on a Friday night, and the grungy, DIY, punk basement show that nearly sent me home with a concussion each caught me off guard in the best kinds of ways. I've appreciated the surprises as much as the big name shows, both for giving me a taste of the less visible gems living in and traveling through C-U, and for giving me incentive to dig for more.
With the combination of a promising visiting band, two much beloved local bands, and a venue that's slightly off the beaten path, I have high hopes that Friday's show will be one of those gems.
Element one: Chicago's Soft Speaker. While Soft Speaker is still a relatively young band, its founding members, Paul Foreman and Joe Daley, have been playing together for nearly a decade. The two began in 2002 in Chicago, putting out an EP, a 7", and two full-lengths with The Saturday Nights before disbanding in 2008. Foreman and Daley moved on to start Soft Speaker with the help of Nick Rocchio and Blair Douglass. Since winter of 2008 the foursome has churned out two EPs and two digital singles. Soft Speaker's latest EP, Stranger in the Alps, blends together styles and influences from alt rock to psychedelic, creating a sound that is warm, lively, and underscored with synth and heavy bass.
Stranger in the Alps (and yes, every time I write that I think of The Big Lebowski) kicks off with the jaunty "Tennyson Tea", punctuated with militant drums and fuzzy guitar riffs. Next up is "I Stand To Lose My Fortune, Easy", a more down tempo, contemplative song with a slow electric finish. "Into the Fog" is a relaxed, ethereal crooner edged with lively guitar, while "Marble Mask" takes off at a run, driving forward with brisk percussion underneath patient vocals. The EP finishes with "Weathervane", the smoothest and most artful song on the record, and a perfect closer.
The band's earlier releases reveal a finesse for trying on different styles, from the dreamy, handclap-laden "Effects Will Show Soon", one of Soft Speaker's first releases, to "Maybe Baby", a hazy, surf rock influenced tune from last fall. Their current collection offers plenty to pull from for Friday's show, and with this spring partially dedicated to work on the band's first full-length, expect Soft Speaker to try out some new ones as well.
Element two: Our very own New Ruins and Tractor Kings. Most of you could probably teach me more about New Ruins than I could you. Either way, New Ruins was one of the bands I knew and loved before I had any idea where Champaign, Illinois was or any idea I'd ever end up here. The band has been a long time in the making, with Elzie Sexton and J. Caleb Means' near-lifetime of musical collaborations coming together to create New Ruins in 2004. Paul Chastain and Roy Ewing were added the next year, followed by Andrew Davidson in 2008. New Ruins blends together bits and pieces of the alt and indie rock I love — the grit of Dinosaur Jr., the playfulness of pre-millenium Modest Mouse, and the observational poetry of the Silver Jews. New Ruins is honest, easygoing rock, with a catchiness that never tries and a youthfulness that is never less than genuine. After releasing their third full-length, We Make Our Own Bad Luck, last April, the band has begun work on their fourth full-length, as yet untitled.
Tractor Kings have been playing in C-U even longer, since 1998 when Jake Fleischli and Rebecca Rury first began playing together. Since then, the band has seen many years of expansion, relocation, and member rotation, landing back in Champaign to work on their 4th LP with a new lineup: Johnny Davidson, Andrew Davidson, and Aaron McCallister round out the group. Tractor Kings play country-influenced, toned-down rock, with elements of psychedelic fuzz filling out their sound. Their latest release, Homesick, adds absolutely gorgeous production to the equation, creating a crisp-sounding album that mixes twang and feedback to create a sound all their own.
Element three: Bentley's. Take the opportunity to catch a show you can't see any night of the week in C-U. Have a full-sized pint, play darts on a real board between sets, and enjoy the intimacy of a warm, friendly venue sans rowdy drunks (I got knocked over by a drunk, belligerent undergrad last time I went to the Canopy. No joke.). The show starts at 10 p.m.