U.S. Maple fans, some of the most rabid in all of indie-rock, are walking around with granite-strength boners these days. That's because axe-master Todd Rittmann and drummer Adam Vida have a new project. It's called Singer, and the quartet sounds a lot like its predecessor.
Those old fans will instantly begin frothing at the mouth over Singer's debut, Unhistories, and its similar-sounding seizure-prone snares, narcotic groans, sinister silences, and Beefheartian grooves.
For the uninitiated, U.S. Maple was one of the most cherished avant-rock bands of the past 20 years. Just about every indie dork who spent the '90s trolling rock clubs and seedy warehouses can recall, with vivid detail, his first U.S. Maple show. These four kinda-creepy, kinda-absurd dudes twitched all about the stage like malfunctioning clones while filtering classic cock-rock moves through the most freakish tendencies imaginable. It was cool, mesmerizing, and utterly alien. The guys made an intentional break with everything else that was going on around them — namely, stale-ass post-rock.
You'd think the two holdovers, Rittmann and Vida, are the reasons for these aural similarities between Singer and U.S. Maple (and they probably are, on several unconscious levels). But that's not the case, claims Ben Vida, Adam's brother and Singer bandmate. "The things that are the most U.S. Maple-like are the product of [bassist Robert Lowe] and I being fans," says Ben, who plays guitar. "Of the four of us, it's actually Todd who's the least interested in having any U.S. Maple-isms in the group. Of course, he can't help being who he is. He was such an important aspect of what that band was."
Ben, who has logged time in Chicago mainstays Town & Country and the For Carnation, is comfortable with his influences the way a bluegrass picker or bebop musician would be: There exists an accepted tradition within which innovation and interpretation is carried out by the group. This is a rare attitude for a musician exploring the outer reaches of indie-rock. Most of these cats are hard-core modernists. They believe in looking forward, not backward. Yet the acceptance of tradition is what makes Unhistories so satisfying. It's the last move you'd except from this group of sonic explorers.
Age, according to Vida, plays a key role. "We're not just young musicians, and this isn't our first group," he explains. "We've all made a lot of records and spent years investigating strange little worlds of music. We get together, and it feels very loose and organic."
Vida says the group's attention to detail comes naturally. "It just feels like a rock and roll band," he says. "There's not a lot of trickiness or cleverness going into it."
That musicianship allows the band to pull a few tricks its predecessor never could. U.S. Maple constructed artsy, whiplash-inducing anti-grooves, always denying that wonderful trance state that great rock rhythms invoke. Just as your foot started tapping, U.S. Maple pulled the rug right out from under you. Singer does that on a few tracks. But the band also flat-out jams. "Please, Tell the Justices We're Fine," Unhistories' centerpiece, is a hypnotic slice of classic punk-funk, featuring four-part harmonies that dissolve into squealing drones.
The six-and-a-half-minute epic benefits from Ben and Lowe contributing ideas they've fleshed out in their Town & Country and 90 Day Men projects. "It's nice to bring in the work we've done prior, and the work we do parallel, to the group and not have it feel like we're forcing a square peg into a round hole," says Vida. "The nature of the collaboration is surprisingly open to having individual personalities shine through. It all ends up sounding very coherent."
Singer definitely strikes that tricky balance between coherency and diversity. Using U.S. Maple's basic aesthetic as a kind of solidifying agent, the group expertly pieces together a breadth of ideas that would clash if left in less-experienced hands. Lowe — known for his ghostly falsetto and electronic gadgetry — laces a handful of Unhistories' tracks with microscopically crackling static and other IDM textures. And in the last cut, "Mauvais Sang," Lowe's hazy cry leads his mates through a Middle Eastern-inspired intro before Vida and Rittmann take over with some nasty guitar interplay.
The fact that Ben and Rittmann can engage even in dueling lead guitars à la Crazy Horse and not blow apart this meticulous three-part composition blows the mind. It's not as if Singer is a bunch of neo-classic rockers — although Vida might have the ego of one. "I've been reading some of the reviews, and Rittmann has been getting credit for my guitar parts," he laughs.
Ben shrugs it off for good reason. While most musicians would be dying to climb out from underneath U.S. Maples' shadow, he's embraced it in an attempt to further tradition. On his own terms.