By Gregg Shapiro
After a lengthy absence, the Chicago rock music scene is back on our radar again. With the reunited Smashing Pumpkins (minus D’arcy, of course) embarking on a huge concert tour and Liz Phair’s 25th-anniversary reissue of her groundbreaking debut album Exile in Guyville (under the moniker Girlysound to Guyville) on almost everyone’s playlist, the Second City sounds good.
In addition to the Girlysound to Guyville reissue, Liz Phair is also being feted on vinyl via the LP reissues of 1994’s Whip-Smart and 1998’s Whitechocolatespaceegg (both on Capitol/UMe). Arriving as it did so soon after Exile in Guyville, Whip-Smart had a lot resting on its shoulders. It not only held up on its release, it still holds up today. Aside from featuring a few songs from the legendary Girlysound sessions (such as the lo-fi tunes “Chopsticks” and “Shane”), Whip-Smart also included numerous daring standouts such as the rocking single “Supernova”, “Cinco de Mayo”, the early alt-country of “Nashville” and the sexy punk sneer of “Jealousy”. It may have suffered by comparison to Exile in Guyville upon its release, but if you’re wise, you’ll give Whip-Smart another chance.
Four years passed before the release of Phair’s Whitechocolatespaceegg. Like its predecessor, this album also contained a revisited Girlysound selection, “Polyester Bride.” The remainder of the disc sounds like a marriage of the hipster aesthetic with arena rock. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and songs such as “Johnny Feelgood”, “Big Tall Man”, “Shitloads of Money”, “Go On Ahead”, “Ride”, “What Makes You Happy” and the gorgeous “Uncle Alvarez”, sound as good now, if not better than they did 20 years ago. More than anything, what this album does is pave the way for Phair’s self-titled 2003 pop-oriented album which gave her an official hit single in “Extraordinary.”
The early `90s success of Chicago rock acts such as Phair, the Pumpkins, Veruca Salt, Urge Overkill, Material Issue and others, led to a major-label feeding frenzy. One beneficiary was Jonny Polonsky whose major-label power-pop debut was released in 1996. It would be eight years before there was an official full-length album follow-up to the first record. In the interim, Polonsky kept himself busy as a session musician. His rock-oriented 2018 LP Fresh Flesh (jonnypolonsky.com), Polonsky’s first in three years, features impressive guest musicians including Kevin Haskins (Love and Rockets) and Mark Lanegan (Queens of the Stone Age).
Featuring album cover images by beloved Chicago artist Tony Fitzpatrick, Crooked Love (Rock Ridge Music) is the first album by Ike Reilly (aka Ike Reilly Assassination) in three years. Since the beginning, Reilly has had a fondness for songs about colorful characters living on the fringes. This album is no exception, as you can hear on songs such as “She Haunts My Hideouts,” “Living in the Wrong Time,” “Boltcutter Again,” “Took It Lying Down” and “Clean Blood Blues.”
Uber-hipster act Joan of Arc has been challenging and rewarding listeners with its particular brand of post-art-rock for more than 20 years. Is it possible that 1984 (Joyful Noise) is a bridge too far? Even for longtime devotees? It’s hard to say, especially when you hear the incredible “Punk Kid,” with lead vocals by Melina Ausikaitis. It’s a musical life vest in the midst of this bizarre concoction in which what sounds like improvised story-slam pieces are set to avant-garde music. The instrumental “Psy-fi/Fantasy” is also worth mentioning, especially for the use of kazoos.
If you’re craving something more accessible (and who isn’t?), check out Parallel Person (Babe City), the sweet second album by Varsity. Coming across like a Jenny Lewis tribute band, with lead vocals by Stephanie Smith, Varsity makes delightful and timeless indie-pop music that sticks to your ribs. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself listening to the album on repeat, lingering over songs such as “A Friend Named Paul”, “Gordi, You’re A Saint”, “Settle Down”, the subtle surf of “Watching You”, “Krissy” and the bouncy “Alone In My Principles”.
In addition to having a have a female lead vocalist (Berit Ulseth), like the aforementioned Varsity, The Claudettes have a gay bassist, by the name of Zach Verdoorn. The Claudettes’ third album Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! (Yellow Dog) has its own distinctive sound, a blues-tinged retro pop that would make for a good soundtrack to a school dance in the titular gymnasium. Highlights include “Naked on the Internet,” “Don’t Stay With Me,” “Bill Played Saxophone,” “Taco Night Material” and “Total Misfit.”