Perhaps due to the fact they've never really had a bona fide 'hit,' Chicago's Drag City aren't thought of in that Matador/Sub Pop/Merge league of powerhouse indies. Even though they have the same longevity, same productivity, and same run of classic records under their belts. Truth be told, if you're judging solely on artistic merit, Drag City are far superior, tending to an enviable catalog of rare quality; bad DC CDs almost non-existent. Will 'Bonnie "Prince" Billy' Oldham and Bill 'Smog' Callahan have been the label's mainstays, but there've been so many other amazing albums. Here are some of the most amazing.
The first ever album to be released on Drag City showed the budding label didn't have limited ambitions. As, for starters, it wasn't merely an album; it was a double LP, a 69-minute monsterwork from former Pussy Galore guitarist Neil Michael Hagerty, his impossibly-cool squeeze Jennifer Herrema, and their band new bag, Royal Trux. A pair of noise guitarists out to explode rock'n'roll's standard 12-bar blues into radical new forms; taking familiar sounds —vocals, electric guitars, drums shapes— and making them feel unfamiliar, almost sinister. Though unloved in its day, Twin Infinitives would go on to influence future rock-duos like The White Stripes, The Kills, and the Fiery Furnaces, and still stands as the first killer release in Drag City's constantly-brilliant catalog.
Though released after Pavement's Classic Indie-Rock debut Slanted and Enchanted, Westing (By Musket and Sextant wasn't its successor, but an excavation of the band's salad days. Many of the songs therein had been pressed as singles in Drag City's own formative days, with both band and label exploring noisy, unpopulist terrain with the most underground of ambitions. Here, the mysterious SM and Spiral Stairs operated under the influence of Swell Maps, The Fall, and other post-punk provocateurs; rolling tape in their bedroom and embracing a shambolic sound. Yet, from beneath the pall of tape-hiss and atonal guitar klang, it's impossible not to recognize the classic-pop songwriting chops of Stephen Malkmus, and here Westing as harbinger of future greatness for both band and label.
Will Oldham arose, in Drag City's salad days, as a mysterious figure in a more mysterious time. On his first two LPs, Oldham was a phantom, unphotographed and biography-free, releasing one album as Palace Brothers, the next as Days in the Wake, and, then, as Palace Music. The third time around, with the almighty Viva Last Blues, some of that mystery started to peel away; if only because it was the first Palace record to feature credits. The names included Sebadoh second-in-command Jason Lowenstein and Plush pianoman Liam Hayes, and they helped Oldham capture an almost regal-sounding brand of Southern balladry, played with passion and etched with the vocal fire of a preacher at the pulpit. Viva Last Blues captures the early Oldham at the peak of his powers.
There was always a slightly creepy quality to Bill Callahan's early songs, an air of dark sexuality tinged with violence, humor, and Jandekian perversity. After the Kicking a Couple Around EP showed Callahan rounding into brilliant songwriting form, he brought that creepiness masterfully to bear on The Doctor Came at Dawn. The titular quack comes, herein, to pronounce the death of the LP's central relationship; this a break-up record sketched in unsettling, unhinged shades. It's, in all likelihood, the chronicle of Callahan's separation from collaborateur Cynthia Dall, who also happens to sing on the record; which is saying something on a set in which, mid-"All Your Women Things," the narrator caresses a "spread-eagle dolly" fashioned from left-behind undergarments.
When Cynthia Dall's debut was initially pressed, it was entered into the catalog as Untitled by Untitled, thereby consigning the LP to obscurity; even if it may've ended up there, anyway. Encouraged by Drag City to make a solo album, Dall worked with Bill Callahan and Jim O'Rourke on a set of small, strange, sad songs; barely there and compositionally rudimentary, yet achingly powerful. It didn't mark the start of a prolific career: Dall only made one other record, 2002's Sound Restores Young Men, before disappearing. Her tragic death in 2012 marked a sudden end to her work, and made listening to Untitled even more profound, more eerie. "I hope I'm able to protect you more in heaven than I have on Earth," Dall sings in "Aaron Matthew," and, years on, it's flooring.
Movietone's Day and Night is as tenuous and eerie as Cynthia Dall's disc, a suite of songs played at a volume barely above audible. Though effectively slowcore band with a gently jazzy air —where doleful guitars and solemn piano figures were, on occasion, swept along by splashy brushed drums— the English outfit recorded live in old seaside houses, with airy room-tone submerging every sound at muffled distance. When coupled with the band's bashful ways —vocalist Katie Wright sounds so shy can't commit to actual singing— you really have to strain a careful ear to hear Day and Night. "I see images/white house by Greek sea," Wright whispers, almost conspiratorially, mid-"Blank Like Snow," and this part-Haiku/part-Codeine lyric resounds loud with evocative power.
Curly-haired pop savant Liam Hayes first arose in 1994, with a seven-inch, "Three-Quarters Blind Eyes" b/w "Found a Little Baby," that soon took on mythical qualities for lovers of orchestral-pop. They were two perfect pop-songs, all Bacharach melodies tricked out in Van Dyke Parks grandeur, and the rumor told of an author as fastidious perfectionist. After years of silence —in which he was laboring over the troubled epic Fed, which finally turned up in 2002— Hayes made his longplaying debut in an unexpected fashion. More You Becomes You wasn't orchestrated meticulously, but played casually; the stripped-down set finding Hayes, solo at the piano, slipping through a suite of strung-together songs, summoning the '70s singer-songwriter in a casual, conversational manner.
"In 1984, I was hospitalized for approaching perfection/slowly screwing my way across Europe, they had to make a correction." It's one of indie-rock's great album-opening couplets, the lyrical introduction to the finest hour of lo-fi weirdo turned transcendent poet, David Berman. On the first two Silver Jews LPs —1994's Starlite Walker and 1996's The Natural Bridge— the band were misidentified as a Pavement side-project due to the involvement of Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich, but American Water served as Berman's coming out party; the record on which no one could deny it was his band, his time. Of course, Berman continued to refuse to play live in support of it, meaning a veritable indie-rock classic became something more like cult artifact.
David Grubbs founded Gastr del Sol as a 'reset' of his post-hardcore/proto-math-rock outfit Bastro; boasting the same line-up —future Tortoise types John McEntire and Bundy K. Brown— but a clean slate. Starting anew, Grubbs could pursue his fragmented lyrical poetry, fondness for bluegrass guitars, and increasing pull towards avant-garde composition. Gastr del Sol soon morphed into the duo of he and twin spirit Jim O'Rourke, and they grew increasingly interesting over each album. Their fifth LP, Camoufleur, mixed glitchy electronics (from Oval's Markus Popp) with compositional atonality, rich chamber-pop orchestration, and some sweet vocal harmonies between Grubss and O'Rourke. It proved the culmination of their decade together: O'Rourke and Grubbs going their separate ways thereafter.
As 1997's Bad Timing built bluegrass fingerpicking up into mammoth, rollicking post-rock jamborees, eternal-outsider Jim O'Rourke was clearly dipping a toe into pop music's unfamiliar waters. On Eureka, he made a defiant plunge; the brassy, balls-out pop-record daring ape Burt Bacharach. Anchored by O'Rourke's sweet, soft, smirking singing, the album's emotional tenor forever holds on tragicomic; the whole, in turn, feeling both silly and deeply sad. It's, in short, a pop LP as only 'Diamond' Jim could conceive; cold studio science etched with harmonic warmth, emotional resonance tangible, but kept at inscrutable distance. It's a brilliant record that rewards repeat visits, and is certainly the only Drag City disc to directly inspire a four hour Japanese art-movie.