First Breeze of Summer: A musical preview of the University of Chicago’s annual outdoor bash

Photo by Sam Bowman

Photo by Sam Bowman

Every May, the University of Chicago’s Council on University Programming welcomes the warm weather with a Saturday of free food and drinks, inflatables, games, and face painting. Two other organizations, the Major Activities Board and WHPK 88.5 FM, pitch in with consecutive music festivals that together fill the whole day with an eclectic range of music. WHPK’s free concerts start at noon on the quad at 58th and University and run until 5pm, when MAB’s doors open in nearby Hutchinson Courtyard. (MAB’s concert, unfortunately, costs $15 students/$20 staff and requires a University of Chicago ID.) To help make the most of your Summer Breeze, the Chicago Weekly presents a preview of two of our preferred WHPK bands as well as an inside glance at the least-known of MAB’s three headliners. See whpk.org and mab1.uchicago.edu for more information.

caUSE co-MOTION! (WHPK)
The proliferation of obscure, “lost,” and iconic garage, post punk, and choose-your-flavor pop records from the ‘60s through the ‘90s via the Internet and archival compilations has, for bands currently operating in that continuum, made it hard to say where pat revivalism ends and a unique group sound picks up.

The Slumberland Records four-piece caUSE co-MOTION! hit the highs of early indie-pop, Another Sunny Day’s “Anorak City,” the early 14 Iced Bears 7”s, and the June Brides.They sound like they recorded on the same equipment, sure, but they shoot out of the gate already coming apart at the seams, reverb tanks on full, scratchy jangle up high, riding a skiffling, Moe Tucker tub pound. Arno and company take the classic indie-pop moves out of mothballs, setting them to a runaway teenage (or twenty-something) fervor.

Over the past few years, caUSE co-MOTION! have released a spate of 7” singles and EPs on their own dime and on the labels Can’t Cope, Cape Shok, and What’s Your Rupture?, most of which are long gone. Two new EPs, “Because, Because, Because” and “I Lie Awake” EPs have been released by iconic pop label Slumberland Records, along with a compilation CD, “It’s Time: Singles and EPs 2005-2008.” “The label is great with a long, hip history,” says Arno (vox and guitar). Slumberland, founded by Mike Schulman in 1989, has been home to the best post-Sarah Records pop for the past 15 years: Black Tambourine, the Aisler Set, Velocity Girl, and on and on and on. “[We’re] here to stay. Mike is the greatest,” adds Arno.
While their newest, “Because, Because, Because,” sees what is certainly the tightest, most even incarnation of caUSE co-MOTION! yet, part-time punks can rejoice in the off-to-the-races crash anthem “Leave It All,” and Crass-by-way-of-The Pastels “Is What You Say What You Mean?” With the longest track clocking in at 2:11, “Because, Because, Because” continues to deliver the here-and-gone-again basement pop that has become caUSE co-MOTION!’s hallmark.

The primary-colored, cobbled-together silk-screened covers and fliers that look straight out of early ‘90s fanzines might suggest a backwards-looking viewpoint, but caUSE co-MOTION! turn that notion right back on its head, channeling the spastic vitality that made DIY pop so exciting in the first place. (Eric Hanss)

Thomas Function (WHPK)
Kindled from the ashes of what their keyboardist calls the “cocaine-influenced evil fascist” band Alabama Jihad, Huntsville’s Thomas Function is solidly in the running for America’s Most Charming Rockers. Masters of the organ-backed mid-tone mid-tempo pop song, they pressed their first single in the summer of 2006. Since then, the four-piece has released three more 7”s and a highly-acclaimed LP titled “Celebration.” Though their name is a mystery to most of their members (keyboardist Zachary Jeffries suggests it’s about not wanting to be a person), Thomas Function’s appeal is pretty straightforward. They’re upbeat and catchy–“a house party band if there’s one to play at”–appropriately enough for a garage rock/power pop scene that revolves around house shows. Not that Summer Breeze is a bigger audience than Thomas Function is used to. At the massive Austin independent music festival SXSW, their bounce and bright tones earned rave reviews.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas Function’s influences read like a how-to guide for a sharp pop band. Television is a prominent inspiration, especially their 1977 debut “Marquee Moon,” which was played daily on tour until the van’s tape deck broke. Seminal not-punks The Feelies show their influence too, along with early millennial indie rockers the Deadly Snakes and the canon of Southern rock, psych, and soul. In contemporary terms, this places the Function in the same thumping, chiming garage league as Cheap Time, Nobunny, or the Wax Museums. The Southern aspect of Thomas Function’s sound is a trickier subject. As far as the Huntsville scene goes, Jeffries claims “there’s not a lot going on,” though he nevertheless runs the annual Bamalama Fest there, a weekend-long festival that draws garage rock/power pop/weird punk bands from across the country. Singer Joshua Macero has a charismatic twang, maybe most notably on “Sherman’s March,” a harangue against Northern presumptuousness. But Thomas Function’s appeal is catholic. As Jeffries puts it, “people who are into it are really into it.” It’s hard not to be. (Michael Joyce)

Voxtrot (MAB)
Twee-boppers, the University of Chicago Major Activities Board has finally heeded your high-pitched call for change: in less than two days’ time, Voxtrot will be on the UofC campus.

Concertgoers can look forward to both the bouncy, sugar-glossed confessions that garnered the group early comparisons to Belle and Sebastian, as well as the more dramatic, synth-heavy songs that characterize the band’s later work.

It is a little simplistic to attempt to describe Voxtrot’s music as one unified sound—over time, they seem to have had several. “Raised by Wolves,” their first major song, combined soaring choruses anchored by energetic and string-heavy melodies. But as time went on, Voxtrot’s content seemed to become edgier, and their mood less optimistic.

In fact, bloggers and critics alike have noted that Voxtrot’s new music doesn’t match the hype that their early work created. Ramesh Shrivastava, Voxtrot’s frontman, attributes the evolution of their sound to “just being a band,” but one senses a deeper change than he is willing to admit.

After a two-year hiatus, Voxtrot recently released the single “Trepanation Party.” Shrivastava describes trepanation as a procedure popular in the ‘60s involving “a power drill to release the pressure in your brain so that hypothetically you could live on LSD forever. It’s supposed to have this cool, calming effect.” While Shrivastava attributes the inspiration for the song to conversations he had with a friend from Berlin named Lucy, who is mentioned in the song, lyrics such as the closing line also suggest the woes of celebrity: “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?”

In the sort of move that made Voxtrot famous, Shrivastava uses the idea of trepanation to build a bookish lyrical metaphor: “Everyone I know is losing their minds / yeah but everyone I know has a really good time / Drilling holes in my head / you will never go blind.” Yet the repetitive emphasis of synthesizer beats doesn’t match the varied guitar melodies that fill Voxtrot’s older EPs in their ability to infect listeners with a mood. The end result sounds like manufactured melodrama.

Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine Voxtrot, being the astute performers that they are, not living up to expectations at Summer Breeze. Their show has all the potential to be a brilliant, jittery coalescence of the personal and carefree…if they stick to the old stuff. (Emma Ellis)