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Chamber Full of Soul

Chamber Strings leader Kevin Junior wasn't the most obvious candidate to write and sing one of the best soul songs of the year. The pale, rail-thin singer still favors the same skintight black pants, frilly shirts, and Keef-ish hairdo he modeled as a glam-rock wannabe in the execrable Mystery Girls in the late 80s. But "It's No Wonder," the hooky, horn-and-string-swaddled standout track from his band's forthcoming second album, Month of Sundays, is the genuine article, wrapping the melodic sophistication of Philly soul stars the Intruders, the orchestral grandeur of Chicago soul producer Carl Davis, and the clear-eyed plangency of Dusty in Memphis around an introspective rumination on a hopeless relationship.

In the past Junior has professed his love of vintage soul and Brill Building pop, but with the new album he's finally managed to make music that lives up to its models. "I grew up listening to soul," says Junior. "It's what my parents listened to. I figured out how to do it myself this time. I think the main thing is that I've learned how to play the piano on the guitar. I learned all of these piano chords, and it was easy to show [pianist] Carolyn [Englemann], and she didn't have to translate it. It allowed me to make the record I had in my head." Englemann joined in 1999, several months after the Aurora-based Bobsled label reissued the band's wonderful 1998 debut, Gospel Morning, and Junior says she's since become essential to the arranging process.

The abundant pretty tunes on that record seem half-finished compared to the tracks on Month of Sundays, which glows with confidence that might be attributed to the stable lineup. (The band now includes original drummer Anthony Illarde, guitarist Tim Fowler, and bassist Jason Walker in addition to Englemann.) And instead of burying Junior's sweet but thin voice, the production--by Junior and Thom Monahan of the Lilys and the Pernice Brothers--wisely pushes it to the front of the lush arrangements. "I always purposely mixed my vocals down," Junior says. "I think a lot of times it was just because I liked that kind of production better, like the way Exile on Main Street was mixed, but I realized there was no reason to do that this time because I thought they were sounding really good. It wasn't really a conscious decision, I just kind of did it automatically and I felt comfortable with it." Most of the new melodies sound closer to Carole King than the Stones, and Junior sings them with impressive poise and restraint.

Following the Bobsled reissue of Gospel Morning, the group spent more than a year touring, and Junior expects to put in similar road time for the new album--which means it's likely we won't get another Chamber Strings album until 2003 or later. But if the growth evident on the new album had anything to do with constant touring, the third one should be an instant classic.

The band will celebrate the release of Month of Sundays on Friday at Metro with a full complement of brass and string players. The disc actually comes out later in the month, though copies will be available at the show.

Postscripts

Harvey Sid Fisher "writes screenplays, is an actor, and is one of L.A.'s top ten million photographic models," claims his bio, but his crowning achievement is Astrology Songs, a cult album that sets his explications of the zodiac signs to cheesy synth-pop melodies. In "Aquarius," he sings flatly but earnestly: "First I must see what you have for a brain / For me to be reached on a physical plane / I'm buddies with the many but I don't get too close / I belong to all and none / I like when relationships start with a bang / And ends as friends when it's over and done." And lines like "Talking 'bout the Taurus / Talkin 'bout the bully bull bull" or "I am I am I am the ram / I am I am I am the ram" burrow like chiggers into memory.

The onetime New York hairdresser first tried his hand at songwriting in 1962, with results like "Bouffant Baby," then moved on to acting, taking lessons from Stella Adler before heading for Hollywood in 1969--where he took tiny parts on episodes of Marcus Welby, M.D., I Dream of Jeannie, and Kojak, modeled for department store catalogs, and played a lot of golf. He released Astrology Songs in 1987, and in 1995 it was reissued by Amarillo, the San Francisco label run by Gregg Turkington--aka notoriously unfunny funnyman Neil Hamburger.

When Fisher takes his act on the road, he performs with pickup bands, and for his first-ever Chicago gig on Saturday at the Hideout, he'll be supported by Chicago prog rockers Cheer-Accident. The set will include all of Astrology Songs, and he promises to also perform a few gems from his cassette-only album of feud songs, Battle of the Sexes, duetting with art-rock chanteuse Virginia Montgomery and local shrieker and sexpot Misty Martinez.

Chris Ligon, who owns the Ravenswood shop Record Roundup with his wife, cartoonist Heather McAdams, has released his own album, Crazy Dazy Chris Ligon. The relentlessly strange collection of low-rent country-tinged songs doubles as a comedy record: Ligon can't quite carry a tune, his long breathless phrases tend to trample over the bar lines, and half of his narratives make no sense. But between the rickety quality of his hokey keyboard-heavy backing and his absurd skits--"At Home With Hester" is a collection of phone calls that runs from a series of noise complaints to an utterly incongruous array of Jimmy Stewart references--his charm and humor are undeniable.

Ligon will perform on Friday as part of McAdams's third annual Country Calendar show, a party to celebrate the excellent country-music-history calendars she draws and sells every year. But he won't be doing any of his own material. Instead, he'll team up with McAdams and Cynthia Plaster Caster for a short tribute to white Ohio gospel obscurities the Alexander Family, in a parade of local musicians feting this year's calendar subjects. Among the other participants are Robbie Fulks (doing Porter Wagoner), Jon Langford (Carl Perkins), Kelly Hogan (Merle Haggard), Neko Case (George Jones), and the Dysfunctionells' Vernon Tonges (Pee Wee King). The show is at 9 PM at the Lyons Den, 1934 W. Irving Park; call the Record Roundup at 773-271-5330 for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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