With the continual deterioration of the major record labels and the rise of alternative media outlets (the Internet, reality talent shows, satellite radio), the trend of allowing the public to choose which musician to follow has unleashed an annual batch of "it" bands that never would have seen the light of day.
Two years ago it was Foster the People while last year gave us Alabama Shakes and fun. It hasn't been a full month since fun. grabbed two top-tier Grammies or for a backlash to set inand already we have Imagine Dragons all over the radio.
With zero years of non-stop touring or playing innumerable sparsely attended dive bars, Imagine Dragons seems to have sprouted like their contemporaries: fully buffed, packaged and prepped for mass consumption. Granted, I tried being glib about fun. last year but the reality is that, like that act, the Dragons can't be tagged as part of a mere trend. The label certainly won't fit with a brainy, articulate, passionate slice of art-alt pop like the full-length debut Night Visions (Interscope Records).
What Night Visions really is at heart is a solidly composed, extravagantly performed, shrewdly produced pop album crammed with opposing textures (plenty of percussion and truckloads of echo), bare emotions and drama all dampened with a muted quality. It doesn't hurt that vocalist Dan Reynolds' everyman voice is not only set up front and center, but that he and it sound wholly embraceable.
Behind Reynolds there's a lot of business going on in Night Visions, but producer Alex Da Kid seasons rather than embellishes the album with all manner of varied percussion, synth squiggles and whooshes of who knows what while serving the songs to their fullest.
The smash hit "Radioactive" is a prime example of the Dragons' and Da Kid's smarts. The song starts with a hushed vibe of menace as Ryan moans, "This is it, the apocalypse, whooaa...," while the spare percussion and airy echo build toward an expected crescendo. At the halfway mark the damn thing swiftly and subtly dovetails into a glorious hook and though Reynolds croons, "Welcome to the new age...," with placid authority you can't tell if that new age is by way of H.G. Wells or George Orwell. The punch line is that you really can't care since the song is so seductive that its impossible not to get sucked into it. "Bleeding Out" may not be nearly as radio-friendly, but as the album's anti-ballad it's just as compelling, naked, irresistible and haunting.
If Night Visions sounds like Reynolds being bedeviled by transparent ghosts, Imagine Dragons set loose in front of an SRO crowd on the first of a long-sold-out two-night stand at the House of Blues was more like him trapped in an exorcism to the finish with a stubborn poltergeist. Everything that the album suggested with subtlety and finesse got expanded and filled out to larger-than-life proportions with the kind of flash and thunder that we rarely get since the glory days of Queen.
When he wasn't pounding on his bass drum with oversized mallets or hopping around like a smacked up bunny, Reynolds pretty much hurled his heart on the floor with abandon. I got the idea that he took lessons on stage presentation from Johnny Ray. When bassist Ben McKee and drummers Dan Platzman and Ryan Walker got their clutches on mid-tempo rockers like "Amsterdam" or "Lost Cause" they turned them into massive epics while giving them a whole different life from the recordings.
Funny thing about all this is that with all the blinding shafts of light and "BIG-BAM-BOOM," the words "overkill" or "bombast" never entered my mind. Imagine Dragons was shrewd enough to take all that thunder and bigness and turn the album into a companion piece to the show, simultaneously morphing all of it into one big love in.
In the seven years since I first saw him, it would be hard to convince me that Evanston native Ezra Furman was not born adorable or completely out of his mind. In my top 10 list for 2011 I named his album, Mysterious Power (Red Parlor Records), and his homecoming show at the Subterranean as the best of the year. To top that off I also called his band, the Harpoons, one of the tightest and smartest working outfits in Chicago. Since then there has been another album (The Year of No Returning on Red Parlor Records), more touring, more recording and the formation of an entirely new band dubbed The Boyfriends.
As evidenced by his recent impromptu gig at the Double Door, Furman is still adorable (he can't seem to help it) and still has a mind like a bag full of horny cats. However, by surrounding himself with a punchier band he's managed to temper his wayward brilliance with a bigger edge.
Hitting the stage in a fetching frock (don't ask) Furman's opener, "Bloodsucking Whore," was a blunt indication that this show was designed to go off the rails in a big way. As one of Mysterious Powers' nuttiest highlightsa rocking ode to dysfunctional psychotic lustthat song in particular guaranteed that he wasn't planning on behaving himself or that he didn't expect his SRO audience to either.
Lou Reed's "Rock and Roll" was a perfect example of a cover eclipsing the original with an injection of juice and bite but on "Teenage Wasteland" Furman literally threw a fit. Barking out the chorus ("I don't give a damn/I'm gonna kill myself/I don't see a problem with it!!!") with spit spraying in all directions, it was simultaneously frightening, violent and cruelly funny. "American Soil" got the same treatment but the song's best lyric ("I'm a Jew and I'm writing you a bible") gave the show a feral bite.
Lest anyone assume that this bunch are a surly lot, The Marvelettes' chestnut "Please Mr. Postman" got turned into a stomping romper with Furman slip-sliding all over the stage in socks while The Boyfriends' frat-boy slobber attack morphed the trademark Motown syncopation into a gooey messy free-for-all.
No doubt Gladys Horton was smiling down from the heavens...
Heads up: Tickets for Big Dipper at the Bottom Lounge (March 23) have been on sale for weeks while tickets for Little Boots' long awaited show here at Lincoln Hall May 8 went on sale Saturday.