Clip: Chris Mills
Specter of Spector
September 2, 2005
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
While samplers and Pro Tools now put 100 tracks of overdubs in reach of every basement recording artist, some of the best orchestral pop records ever were recorded live to two tracks, as with the fabled Wall of Sound productions crafted by Phil Spector and the Wrecking Crew.
For singer-songwriter Chris Mills, recording the 17-piece indie-rock orchestra that powers his new album "The Wall to Wall Sessions" wasn't so much an effort to return to rock's roots as it was an issue of necessity.
Mills was trying to figure follow his stellar third album, 2002's "The Silver Line," when he hit on the idea of using an orchestra in place of guitar, bass and drums (though eventually those made their way onto the new album as well). "I don't like to make the same record over and over again, and I didn't have a lot of options financially, because I don't sell a lot of records," he says.
"I was debating the idea of making a home-recorded, bedroom, singer-songwriter record, but that just seemed boring. So I thought, 'How can I do as big a record as possible on the budget I have?' And the answer was, 'Do it live to two tracks in 2-1/2 days!'"
The artist laughs when I ask if this is his "Summerteeth," but he swears that because he's so often compared to Jeff Tweedy, he stopped listening to Wilco years ago, nor is he familiar with other recent ork-pop discs by groups such as the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists. "I'm trying to be more conscientious about my songwriting, so mostly I just listen to a lot of older stuff: the American song book and craftsmen like Cole Porter. The idea wasn't to tap into any movement, but to make a totally old-school, Wrecking Crew kind of record where people just came in and played the songs."
A fixture on the Chicago music scenes for years -- in addition to his solo recordings, he plays with Sally Timms and the Fruit Bats -- Mills moved to Brooklyn two years ago, following his girlfriend. That relationship has since ended, providing fodder for some of his new songs, though others such as "The World Some Sad Hour," "You Are My Favorite Song" and "Constellations" introduce a more whimsical style of lyric-writing. Since his heart and most of his musical connections are still in Chicago, he returned in January to record at Wall to Wall Studios in River North.
The plan was that Mills would rehearse the ambitious arrangements that had been crafted by his friend, composer David Nagler, with all of the players who'd appear on the record, including a five-piece horn section, a four-piece string section, and musicians on piano, drums, bass, banjo, pedal steel guitar, glockenspiel and vibraphone. Then the worst blizzard of the last few years hit and shot that idea to hell.
"There was a big snowstorm, so we could only get like four or five people to the rehearsals. It was shaping up to be a disaster, because nobody really knew the songs when we arrived at the studio. I think Dan [Dietrich, Wall to Wall co-owner and recording engineer] was intimidated by the prospect at first: He told me on the second day that he had almost walked out before we all got there!"
Nevertheless, the musicians -- among them Dave Max Crawford (the Sea and Cake), Susan Voelz (Giant Sand), cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Patrick Newberry (Head of Femur) and guest vocalists Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor -- rallied to the cause, drawing inspiration from Mills' lyrics and infusing Nagler's arrangements with the passion that is rare to songs captured on tape shortly after the band has learned them.
"I've never had a better time doing anything -- not just music, but anything," Mills says. "To hear [drummer] Gerald [Dowd] count it off, and to hear the strings come up as you are singing in a vocal booth with Kelly and Nora, two of the best and most attractive singers in Chicago -- well, you can't really beat that. We'd do a take, and then all 17 of us would file into the control room and listen to the playback.
"The people on the record were all into making a good project instead of flaunting their own egos. The horn players would be like, 'You need to take me down in the mix,' and Dan would be like, 'That's the first time I've ever heard someone ask for less of himself!' Everyone there knew that this was a special thing, none of us had done anything like it before, and we all wanted to put that excitement across."
The result is the strongest album of Mills' career, as well as a testament to the communal spirit of Chicago's indie-rock underground. The artist will celebrate his new release this weekend with a show at Schubas featuring nine of the musicians who played on the disc. And at least this time he can be sure it won't snow.
REASONS FOR LIVING
With the recent death of Robert A. Moog, the rock world lost an instrument maker who did as much as Leo Fender or Les Paul to power the sounds of the last 50 years. After listening to some of the many albums using his synthesizers (from Kraftwerk to Yes to just about every techno artist), the best way to remember this giant is via Hans Fjellestad's riveting 2004 documentary "Moog," recently issued on a DVD crammed with extras, including performances by Stereolab, DJ Money Mark and the Album Leaf.
"Moog" traces the life of this accomplished engineer who became fascinated with theremins as a teenager, and from there went on to craft some of the first practical, portable and musician-friendly synthesizers. Interviews with progressive rock giants such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, funk legend Bernie Worrell and techno innovators DJ Logix and DJ Spooky illuminate Moog's contributions, but the best part of the film is seeing and hearing his amazing machines in action.
In addition to making theremins, the recently revitalized Moog Music Company ( www.moogmusic.com) is producing a new version of the classic Minimoog called the Voyager. If you're thinking about the ideal Christmas gift for the beloved wannabe musician on your list (Hey, honey: Hint, hint, hint!), it's a thing of sheer beauty, and one of the finest electronic instruments ever made. But be warned: The cost is more in line with what you'd expect to pay for a decent used car.
Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions" from 10 p.m. to midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at jimdero@....
CHRIS MILLS, LESSER BIRDS OF PARADISE
# 10 p.m. Saturday
# Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
# Cover $12
# (773) 525-2508