BY MARK GUARINO | SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Steve Dawson is known as the primary architect behind Dolly Varden, the much-loved Chicago folk-pop ensemble, as well as for his solo albums where he indulged a love of Southern soul.
Funeral Bonsai Wedding is a new incarnation and one that expands his strengths through collaboration with a group of improvisational jazz musicians who give space and mood to his lyrical themes. The feeling in similar to a string of albums Van Morrison made in the 1980s where jazz inflections and tone poems having to do with childhood and Christianity resulted in transcendent music that floated back and forth between the far pockets of distant memory and present day awakenings.
Dawson and his new band — vibist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Frank Rosaly — follows similar territory on their self-titled debut album. The nine-minute opening song “Ezra Pound and the Big Wood River,” connects images from Dawson’s childhood in rural Utah and casts them in a call-and-response with the clatter and bounce of the music. These are pungent images and many of them haunting: “Where Hemingway blasted off his own head/Caddisflies creep through the riverbed/When we smashed the slime heads on the rocks/I felt a part of my soul got lost,” he sings.
Adasiewicz’s vibraphone especially lines these songs in a dream, even on the album’s single rock song (“Anywhere You Landed”) where they chime steadily amid the dense churn of guitars and rhythm. On “Harmonium Song,” the instruments clang, shiver, and drone underneath Dawson’s testimonial vocals. “The Valley of the Whale” similarly showcases the deep sensibilities the musicians share with the words.
What makes these songs seductive is that nothing is pinned down, but everything has weight. Some images blend banality and panic — “A line formed around the ice cream shop desperate to beat the heat/As sirens split wide the late August air” — creating the sense that atop the sheen of all this Americana, there are cracks.
Funeral Bonsai Wedding plays a CD release show 9:30 p.m. Friday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave. $12. Visit constellation-chicago.com or stevedawsonmusic.com.
Funeral Bonsai Wedding performing “Ezra Pound and the Big Wood River” this summer at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.
In the era of digital single sales, what band is committed to the double album?
The Hushdrops. This Chicago trio is consistent in waving the flag for power pop and all its many incarnations over several years. “Tomorrow,” a self-released new album of 22 songs is a stockpile of new material: sludgy garage rock, riff-heavy blowouts, melancholy pop, and sweet, and upbeat chamber melodies. The undercurrent is craftsmanship tuned to inner melodies and lovely vocal harmonies between bassist Jim Shapiro and guitarist John San Juan. Their singing transforms these songs and gives them their magic.
Like classic works by Big Star, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, and Todd Rundgren, these songs show the Hushdrops recognizing their debt to the British Invasion, but going beyond it to use those embellishments to create an authoritative sound. On “The Earth is Flat,” guitars flash with defiance, voices shimmer with harmony, drums rumble, and there’s even an instrumental bridge — all within two minutes. The bummer of “One More Raindrop” — “one more love song sung in vain/one more sunrise washed away … this happens every time,” San Juan sings — is sweetened by the tuneful melody and crunch of guitars.
This is a band with commitments: Shapiro with Veruca Salt, San Juan with Liam Hayes and Plush and drummer Joe Camarillo with the Waco Brothers. Getting this album amid all that activity? We’re the lucky ones.
The Hushdrops play 8 p.m. Thursday (tonight) at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave. with Nora O’Connor and Steve Frisbie. $10. Visit hideoutchicago.com or hushdrops.net.
The Hushdrops and “Tomorrow”: