What it Takes to Be the New Black | Music Review | Chicago Reader

What it Takes to Be the New Black 

The local art punks are doing for their second album what they never did for their first.

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You'd never guess to watch her that Patti Gran has stage fright. Liz Phair used to freeze like a deer in headlights, and Chan Marshall would hide behind her hair or even turn her back on the crowd. But Gran, who sings and plays guitar with popular local art punks the New Black, is a powerful front woman with a hair-raising voice and a magnetic stage presence. Trouble is, her confidence is only a veneer. "It's pretty bad," she says. "I'm generally just about to puke before I go on."

"It's actually pretty funny," says bassist and singer Liam Kimball. "There have been a couple times, right before we're about to go on, when I look over and she'll have disappeared."

Gran's nerves will be getting a thorough working over this fall: the New Black's second full-length, Time Attack (Thick Records), comes out September 27. The band's playing a pair of CD-release parties this weekend, then leaving on a three-week stateside tour in October.

As anxious as Gran gets about shows, she's been looking for chances to make music for much of her life. Born and raised in the suburbs of Miami, she was a full-fledged metalhead by the time she got her first electric guitar at 15. "I wanted to learn every freakin' Pantera song," she says. "I wanted to shred really badly." A year later, in 1995, she was into stuff like Fugazi and Sonic Youth, but her first band, the Red Shift, didn't hold together long--she couldn't find enough like-minded players. "Miami's a wretched place to grow up musically," she says. "It was all dance music and death metal--like really scary KKK death-metal bands too. Needless to say, I was out of place. So around 2001, I picked a city to move to and came up with Chicago."

Kimball, who'd been struggling to get a decent band going in Albuquerque's insular music scene, made the same decision in the summer of 2000. Shortly after arriving in Chicago he started playing in a four-piece called the South of No North with guitarist and singer Jack Flash, who's currently fronting Bang! Bang!, and drummer Nick Kraska, who's now in the New Black.

Meanwhile Gran was floundering, unable to "crack the scene," as she puts it. But in summer 2002, after meeting bassist Rebecca Crawford and keyboardist Rachel Shindelman through an ad she'd placed in the Reader, Gran formed the pop-punk combo the Dials. A year later she crossed paths with Kimball: the South of No North had lost a guitarist, changed its name to the New Black, and enlisted Shindelman (at the time Kraska's girlfriend and Gran's roommate) to play keys. Gran went to the Prodigal Son in March 2003 to see the band play its first show. "Right after that," she says, "the singer quit."

Kimball brought Gran aboard as a guitar player and took over lead vocals himself, but he soon realized that the new lineup had untapped potential. "When Patti and I first talked we found we had common ground in bands like X, some parts of the Pixies, some parts of the B-52's. I've always liked that call-and-response male-female vocal thing, and I loved the way her voice sounded. So we kinda went from there."

The two-vocalist lineup recorded an EP--basically a glorified four-song demo--that summer at their practice space. In late 2003 they checked into Electrical Audio with engineer Greg Norman--Gran's first experience in a proper studio--to make their self-titled full-length debut, released in March of last year by Thick Records.

The New Black didn't tour in the States to support the disc, but a European booking agent offered to set up six weeks overseas--which the band nearly missed altogether because of Gran's stage fright and fear of flying. "She called me right before we were supposed to leave, asking, 'Nobody's gonna be upset if we don't go, right?' I was like, 'Patti, actually, everybody's gonna be upset,'" says Kimball.

The band made the trip on their own dime, but managed to break even. "It was a great experience overall," Kimball says. "'Cause the kids over there are pretty excited to see anything. In a lot of the places we played, like Slovenia, we felt like we were Kiss or something."

This past spring the New Black hooked up with Norman again, first cutting demos for their second album at his studio in Chicago and then decamping to the Pachyderm Recording Studio outside Minneapolis for a week. They finished vocals and overdubs back at Norman's place in May.

The mature and idiosyncratic sound of Time Attack lends some weight to the band's suspicion that they recorded their debut too soon. "Really, we'd only barely met each other, and only played a handful of shows before we made the first album," says Kimball. "Listening back now, it's obvious we were pretty tentative and still figuring things out."

The new disc tones down the surf-trash B-52's flavor and 60s horror-show keyboard kitsch of the first full-length, allowing the New Black's own style to come to the fore. From the serrated aggression of the title track to the goth-pop whimsy of "Devil in My Car" to the ragged punk swagger of "Der Spook," Time Attack is tightly wound, sometimes vicious, and always engaging, a controlled explosion streaked with sweet girl-group vocal melodies and flashy new-wave keyboards. Several of the tracks showcase Gran's evolving guitar style--since the first record she's learned that her small hands allow her to pick a hummingbird-fast buzz on a single string. Kraska's agitated playing is full of perverse fills that loop outward from the nailed-down grooves, and Shindelman presses her keys into service to provide not just texture but melody, rhythm, and startling, arbitrary stabs and squiggles.

As he did on the first LP, Norman performs a few inspired feats of studio wizardry. The brief lead track, "Mere Cats," is a piano instrumental that's swallowed by a noisy collage assembled from mashed-together snippets of every song on the record, and the eerie whirring that threads through "Red Bandit" is actually several sped-up tracks of Shindelman's knitting needles sawing and sliding across guitar strings.

Gran continues to play with the Dials, though they're reeling from the death of drummer Doug Meis in the July car crash that also claimed the lives of Silkworm's Michael Dahlquist and the Returnables' John Glick. In November the local Latest Flame label will release the Dials' debut LP, Flex Time, finished before Meis was killed.

Meanwhile the New Black is planning to tour the U.S. extensively in support of Time Attack--the upcoming three-week stretch is just the first round. Gran's already on edge. "I'm totally freaking out," she says. "But the band's been great. Now, before every show, Liam will come up and shake me like, 'Get ahold of yourself!' So it's become a routine. The band can count on me getting nauseous, and I can count on them to pull me through."

Russian Circles, New Black, Hanalei, Maps & Atlases, Karma With a K

When: Fri 9/23, 8 PM

Where: Texas Ballroom, 3012 S. Archer (third floor)

Price: $5, all-ages

Info: www.texasballroom.com

New Black, AM Syndicate, Life During Wartime DJs

When: Sat 9/24, 9 PM

Where: The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia

Price: $8

Info: 773-227-4433

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

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