After a season in sabbatical, Chicago indie-Americana band Minor Characters return with ruminations on major themes that probe the intersection between personal dreams and the American dream. On Friday, the revitalized group performs an album release show for “We Can’t Be Wrong” at Subterranean.
A modest reignition had been intended, but singer Andrew Pelletier describes an external force that spurred the band into high gear. “We were thinking of just doing a seven-inch single with two songs,” he says. “But then Donald Trump became president, and we kept writing.”
The band’s heady lyrics are pointed and evocative, but they’re not so much protest songs as soul-searching and angst over the soul of America itself. The perception of the country in the age of alternative facts is explored, with references to Steve Bannon, Ivanka Trump and more. It coalesces in the Tom Petty-styled balladry of the provocative “Pimps of Freedom.”
“The landscape we’re viewing as Americans is all about entertainment,” says Pelletier. “It’s like the movie ‘Idiocracy.’ We elected a reality show administration. As long as we’re entertained by it, this madness will keep propagating.”
The group’s music sounds like it could only have come from Chicago, skirting the territory of local heroes like Wilco and worthy underdogs like The M’s. At the same time, the longtime partnership between Pelletier and guitarist Shelby Pollard benefits from a wide-ranging and restless perspective. Whether at home or abroad in New Orleans, Memphis, Los Angeles or Japan, peace remains elusive. “I’ve been thinking about heaven today,” sings Pelletier in coming-of-age story “Nola.”
Pelletier remembers finding a measure of contentment in unlikely circumstances, helping with cleanup following Hurricane Katrina. “I’m a white kid from the suburbs,” he says. “I had never seen tragedy like that. New Orleans was so ravaged, but people were resilient and kind and proud of their culture. Despite the hardship, it somehow seemed heavenly.”
Other songs leave Pelletier dangerously exposed. The singer is a gifted observer and storyteller, but many of the regrets and shortfalls described in songs like the melancholy “Glory Days” and autobiographical “Canvas Kid” are close to the bone. “It’s all me,” he says with a wry laugh. “I’m not doing a Father John Misty thing quite yet.”
Minor Characters’ sound travels as far and wide as the thematic album’s globe-trotting protagonist. The recriminatory “I’m Going Places” traces the somnambulant waltz of Radiohead’s “Nice Dream.” “Soviet Girlfriend” cribs from Big Star’s chiming Memphis soul-pop. “Kamakura” and its dark fantasy of cascading travel bans is a blast of snarling punk, wherein Pelletier draws the connection between Woody Guthrie and the Ramones. “Punk music is just really fast folk music,” he says.
The album title “We Can’t Be Wrong” is a manifesto for Minor Characters as artists and citizens. “We could’ve gone back to steady jobs, but we remembered the dream that got us here,” says Pelletier. “We still believe in it. It goes for the ideals that founded our country, too. We’re going to get back to that.”
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.