Pinetop Seven: Rigging the Toplights

Pinetop Seven
Rigging the Toplights

FLÜGELHORN? CHECK! TOY piano? Check! Rainstick, marimba, organaire? Got 'em. Walkie-talkie? Why, how could you not have a walkie-talkie in your instrumental arsenal? If a kitchen sink this clogged were to fall into the wrong hands, we could be facing a second great flood.

Luckily, the flügelhorn is safe with Pinetop Seven, a Chicago three-piece with a knack for painting vivid musical portraits of desolate Midwestern twilights and rural wanderers. Unlike a number of their urban cowboy contemporaries--who cruise through Monument Valley with a slide-guitar motif here and a banjo lead there--this band affectionately plunges into those scenes that elude Hollywood's gaze. A child strives to win a carnival game, and his mother's heart, in the poignant "1st of May," which is delivered in spoken word over a chilling accordion warble. And in "Heavens," dirt falls over the "boy who proved the heavens can be reached in twin prop planes." The lonely "Quit These Hills" reads like "Eleanor Rigby" for the dust-bowl set.

This is somber stuff, made all the more staid by Darren Richard's husky, weight-of-the-world croon. Deep and steady, it's the perfect foil for the band's busy old-time racket: While the desert jazz backdrop falls, the singer smoothly commands the spotlight with starlike authority. Richard has come into his own as a vocalist since the band's self-released 1996 debut, now injecting a warmth and depth that was often lacking on that effort's more tender moments. Indeed, the group (whittled down from a five-piece to Richard, multi-instrumentalist Charles Kim, and upright bass player Ryan Hembrey) has made a significant leap forward as well.

This is made clear from the opening gambit: Following an atmospheric snippet of Kim's clarinet, harmonica, and "nails," the band--augmented by ubiquitous Chicago jazz-guy Ken Vandermark on clarinet--rolls in like the aural equivalent of the rickety wagon portrayed on Rigging the Toplights' cover. Like the painting, the music is muted and earthy. There's a mysteriousness here that's turbid yet comforting, like a scary story at summer camp. Then Richard enters the song with a rich, thoughtful quaver. The spell doesn't lift for 45 minutes.

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