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Ear Bliss: Post-punk soul and oddball alternative country, both with Chicago connections

June 24, 2013

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound, “Howl”

A couple of bands with Chicago connections are in the Ear Bliss spotlight. Both J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound and The Handsome Family record for long-running Windy City indie labels in Bloodshot and Carrot Top records, respectively. As you’ll read, the similarities pretty much end right there. Let’s get to business.

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound
Bloodshot Records
Daptone Records has its Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and Charles Bradley. ATO Records has The Alabama Shakes. Yep Roc Records has The Relatives. All are soul bands. For its first foray into soul, Chicago-based Bloodshot Records turned to a hometown entity in JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. The band’s debut arrived in October of 2011. Titled “Want More,” it was a raw gut-punch of post-punk soul featuring a front man in singer Brooks who knew how to bring the drama backed by a tight-as-a-tourniquet band. It rocked pretty darn well. The band toured its butt off for the next year-plus and played such prestigious music festival events as Lollapalooza and Bumbershoot. Where it found time to make a new album is beyond me, but they did and it is a beauty. For the making of “Howl,” the band retreated to Hotel2Tango Studio in Montreal during a break from the road last December to work under the tutelage of producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade). There is nothing more exciting than a band that goes into a studio with the attitude to not just recreate the same thing all over again. That was exactly the approach JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound adopted and it reveals itself in spades on “Howl.” There is a deep soul to this album. Brooks’ songs have a personal quality to them, at times emotional, at other times provocative, but always with that soul underpinning. Brooks is at the forefront letting his versatile voice drive the subject matter. The Uptown Sound, from the guitar flourishes of both the hooky and the stinging variety to the spot-on keyboard work to the steady grooves kicked out by the rhythm section take the sound into new sonic dimensions, are with their front man every step of the way. With “Howl,” JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound take their music in new directions. It’s a bold step, but the confidence with which they deliver the goods is nothing short of impressive. Visit

The Handsome Family
Carrot Top Records
The song titles read like this: “Flies,” “Frogs,” “Eels,” “Octopus,” “Owls,” “Caterpillars,” “Glow Worm,” “Lizard,” “Woodpecker,” “Gulls,” “Spider” and “Wildebeest.” Those alone are probably enough to clue someone in that the songs of Brett and Rennie Sparks, a.k.a. The Handsome Family, are not your ordinary lot. Celebrating 25 years as the king and queen of oddball alternative country music, some have labeled their songs and music gothic with a predominantly Appalachian flavor, especially given the often-times dark and macabre nature of their subject matter. “Wilderness” is no exception to past albums. The natural beauty found in their lyrics, some of which can make one squirm, has always been a Handsome Family hallmark. The 12 songs comprising “Wilderness” are rich in detail and the music weary and forlorn. History, much of it offbeat, weaves its way in and out of these “nature” songs. On “Wildebeest” we learn of the death of Stephen Foster in a Bowery flophouse, whereas the death of General Custer on a Montana prairie is fodder for the leadoff song “Flies.” There’s “Woodpecker,” which uses the process of selecting a tree for pecking as a metaphor, to tell the tale of Mary Sweeney who gained notoriety as the “Wisconsin Window Smasher of 1896” as chronicled in the book “Wisconsin Death Trip” by Michael Lesy. Off-the-beaten-track subject matter with a nod to nature is the norm in the songwriting scheme of The Handsome Family. It makes for fascinating listening as the likes of artists ranging from Jeff Tweedy to Andrew Bird to Kelly Hogan to Christy Moore, all of whom have covered their songs, will attest. While available in all the formats (CD, vinyl and MP3 format), those really looking to dig into The Handsome Family should consider the “Wilderness” box set which includes a deluxe LP (with download code), a companion book of essays and art by Rennie Sparks, a six-postcard set, and 11-inch by 17-inch poster. A “Wilderness” tour de force, if you will. Visit
The Handsome Family appears at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, Mass. (16 Anawan St.) Friday, June 21. Singer/songwriter Sean Rowe opens. Music begins at 8 p.m.

Portland, Maine-based band The Mallett Brothers return to The Ocean Mist (895 Matunuck Beach Rodd, Matunuck) Friday night to deliver their catchy, roots rocking sounds staring at 9 p.m.
Moving to Saturday, a hot evening of blues and old school R&B are in store at the Narragansett Café (25 Narragansett Ave.) as Ocean State stalwarts Dave Howard and Neal Vitullo & the Vipers make their monthly stop at the venerable Jamestown watering hole. Music starts at 9:30 p.m.
The Sunset Music Series continues at the Newport Yachting Center this Sunday with what is being billed as a “Sunday Jam fest.” Leading the way is one of the premier jam bands in the land, moe. Joining it on the bill are a couple of Ocean State entities in Eddy’s Shoe and openers Boo City. Gates open at 3 p.m.
A great show at The Columbus Theater in Providence (270 Broadway) on Sunday night with Brooklny-based old timey outfit O’Death sharing a bill with fast rising Providence-based band Last Good Tooth. Doors are at 8 p.m. and music begins at 9 p.m.
(Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance broadcast Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.)


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