After the fine-lined deluge of technically astute, occasionally bloodless post-rock that commanded the Chicago-based underground-rock scene in the late 1990s, I was beginning to wonder when that city would recultivate its devotion to the shamblingly polluted music that initially brought it attention, back when a young Drag City Records was issuing the first murmurs by California slacker shamans Pavement and deranged bloozehounds Royal Trux. For a while it seemed Thrill Jockey's stable of studio-rat workaholics (basically Tortoise and everyone under its shell) might usurp the fine Drag City tradition of haphazard brilliance--that the barbarians might be locked behind their own gate, destined to a purgatory of anemic Eagles choruses and malformed Black Crowes riffs.
Hearing the fine new albums by former Trux driver Neil Michael Hagerty and the post-Red Red Meat outfit Califone, I realize that the madmen didn't really retreat; they just needed time to properly ferment. After all, Hagerty and his soul sister (or wife or girlfriend or something) Jennifer Herrema found themselves exiled more than a few times on their way to Main Street, landing in an ill-advised relationship with Virgin Records that took three post-op Drag City discs to shake off. Hagerty's first solo outing, last year's self-titled effort, didn't really convince me the hangover had cleared, sounding more like a crude mock-up of the Trux's trash-art aesthetic than an elaboration on it--too much booze, not enough wooze.
But Neil Hagerty Plays That Good Old Rock and Roll revives the wobbly balance between form and fuck-all that the seminal Chicago school of the early '90s so trenchantly defined: On "Sayonara" a lovely string section glides over an unkempt rhythm-guitar chime and a battery of cymbal splashes, while Hagerty sings crap poetry in his best falsetto before diving headfirst into a blistering fuzz solo.
Califone, Neil Michael Hagerty, and Miighty Flashlight
Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios
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Meanwhile, Califone is out in the Windy City wilds on Roomsound, its first full-length after a pair of bewitching EPs, fiddling with roots rock until it resembles a backwoods answer to Radiohead's big-city bewilderment: Let the lunar-eclipse acoustics of "Porno Starlet Vs. Rodeo Clown" wash over you tonight, and wonder if you don't feel back in good, strangely comforting hands. --M.W.