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Town and Country

Learning to love the ebb and flow.
Monday Mar 13, 2006.     By Scott Smith
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

After almost 10 years of crafting its minimalist acoustic sound, Town and Country is finally learning to relax a little with the release of its sixth album, Up Above.

"Rather than try to leap over a hurdle, we've just tried to do something we really enjoy," says bassist Josh Abrams. Guitarist Ben Vida agrees. "We really know each other and were approaching everything in a much more casual fashion," he says.

Though often identified with Chicago's post-rock scene, Town and Country's sound doesn't lend itself to easy categorization. In fact, there is very little that sounds "casual" about its music.

The quartet, which includes James Dorling on harmonium and Liz Payne on viola and percussion, resembles an affable group of art school students. Yet this unassuming group is responsible for a very complex sound.

Town and Country's first album featured only guitar, harmonium and string basses, while subsequent records added celeste, kalimba and accordion to meticulously constructed arrangements that sound as if they're conducted by a symphony maestro. For its third release, the band spent a year arranging and composing in living-room rehearsals before setting foot in the studio. Clearly, it takes a lot of work to create something so minimalist.

The harmonic drone perfected by Tony Conrad is a heavy influence over many of Up Above's 10 tracks. Moreover, each member of the band plays at least six instruments, from the familiar (violin, glockenspiel) to the obscure (Japanese instruments like the khaen and shakuhachi). The result is a series of layered soundscapes that allow each individual part to shine.

"The limitation of the band has always been acoustic music," says Abrams. In the past, we've used instruments from other places or cultures but we've been sly about it or tried hiding them. This time we've just let things be as they are."

The rewards for this new approach are some of the best reviews the band has ever received, though that may be due to the rise in popularity of "chamber pop" bands that bear some resemblance to Town and Country's dreamlike, jazzy compositions.

For a band that thrives on improvisation, it's taken the group several years to realize that its next move is completely up to them. "We don't feel like we have to be out on the road touring," says Vida. "We used to feel some sort of obligation because we're in a band and that's what you do. At this point in Town and Country's life, it doesn't have to work in any certain way."

While other local bands are making ambitious plans to become the next big thing, Town and Country are content to enjoy the challenges of experimentation inherent in their music. "We make this music because we love it," says Abrams. "We're trying to do something personal and hope it resonates with people."

Tell me who you are: We were thinking of playing music in an acoustic and minimal way and digging deeper into the history of minimalism and world music. Within the parameters of the band, those two things apply. It's a lot more visceral than people expect. Especially what we're doing now. There's some force behind it.

In the beginning: Abrams: "We first played the Lunar Cabaret. And then Urbis Orbis after that. Ben made these great flyers with drawings..." Vida: "I think it was a guy touching his toes in the bathtub."

Here I amórock you like: Abrams: By definition, what we do is super-post-rock but by sound it's not post-rock at all. We're working as a band in a rock setting making non-rock music.

What's cool in your neck of the woods: Abrams: Los Nopales. That's a good restaurant on Western Avenue near Wilson. The Velvet Lounge. Danny's [Tavern] is a great spot. I play records there a lot. Danny's understands the community aspect of a bar and they present a surprisingly wide array of things.

This band blew my hair back: Abrams: I think Cory Wilkes' band is great. He's a young trumpeter who took Lester Bowie's place in the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Greg Ward is great...I could go on forever. There are so many great musicians here.

Fresh from the woodshop: Up Above on Thrill Jockey.

Coming soon to a bar near you: Up Above's record release party at Empty Bottle on Wednesday, March 15.


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