Sharps and Flats: June of 44

Mark Athitakis reviews "Four Great Points" by June of 44.

Published January 21, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

One of the finest bands to spin off from the Louisville-Chicago math rock axis, June of 44 ... wait, wait, hold on a second. Some explanations are in order about this "math rock" business. Lanky, wallet-chained indie rock obsessives have been swooning over math rock for years without a whisper in the mainstream, and even without a useful definition of what it is. Math rock ("post rock" also works well at cocktail parties) is a bit like pornography: You can't say exactly what it is, but you know it when you hear it. Very generally, it's Midwestern rock types combining styles that usually wouldn't speak to each other: the loopy bass-heavy thrub of dub reggae, the guitar aggression of heavy metal and the clinical, claustrophobic sound of art-punk bands like Wire. Drum beats are syncopated, vocals are whispered little tales of anguish and the guitarists focus on little arpeggiated squiggles that break into distorted power chording just to make sure you're paying attention. Think of Yes, or King Crimson with an attitude problem and defaulted student loans.

Math rock got its feet wet in Louisville, Ky., and its main oracle is Slint's jaw-dropping 1991 record, "Spiderland," an album some still listen to with the same awed reverence with which penitents gape weeping at icons of the Virgin Mary. Breaking up a week before the album's release, Slint became an instant indie rock legend. What happened next created a scene more inbred than the Kentucky Derby: Not many people bought "Spiderland" when it came out, but everyone who did started a band, drawing mainly on musicians from Chicago and Louisville -- each, apparently, with a former member of Slint. June of 44 features drummer John Scharin, who played in Codeine, members of which played in, er, Bitch Magnet, which featured members of Slint, which in turn played with ... oh, forget it.

The point is this: One of the finest bands to spin off from the Louisville-Chicago math rock axis, June of 44 is moving the math rock sound forward in new ways that are both intense and eloquent. "Four Great Points," the band's third full-length album, is a consistently inventive record, and one that carries a level of emotion that's rare in a genre often plagued with detached, highly textured noodling. Firmly grounded in Fred Erskine's supple bass lines and Scharin's at times ferocious drumming, songs like "Doomsday" and "Of Information and Belief" wander but retain their emotional focus. Guitarists Sean Meadows and Jeff Mueller do the quietude-to-raw noise thing better than most, shifting volumes and styles on a dime without making the songs sound like the sum of disparate, stapled-together parts. The tightness of the quartet's playing is revealed during the pure funk-based lockgroove of "The Dexterity of Luck": The music increasingly intensifies and sustains itself for six minutes, without one second of self-indulgence.

Random instruments fly into the mix: violins, Moog keyboards, the sleigh bells on the dub-happy "Lifted Bells," even a typewriter on the closing "Air #17." All of it with the goal of deconstructing rock styles in order to rebuild them: "Take down your art, take down your art," Meadows chants repeatedly on "Does Your Heart Beat Slower," which substitutes as a motto for the entire proceeding. What pervades all of "Four Great Points" is a limber, intelligent approach to the math rock style that ignores the genre's shortcomings and even some of its common themes, with an accessibility that the purest of pure-pop fans can appreciate. If the obsessions and discographical schematics of lanky, wallet-chained indie rockers come off as foreign or even distasteful, June of 44 sounds thrilled to draw you a thrilling and highly articulate diagram.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Mark Athitakis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chicago Music