There must be thousands of them, all polishing their press kits, designing professional Web sites, headlining small venues, opening on larger stages, hoping for their big break. Local bands, even those with abundant talent, aren't an oddity these days. Their names can be seen sprinkled over the entertainment sections of regional publications, announcing their acts, complimenting their originality. But they're all original and they're all catering to the same audience: the mainstream. In order to break through, they simply need the unlikely combination of good marketing and loads of luck. Chicago's increasingly popular sextet Canasta may have what it takes, but their future still lies in the cards.
They're named after a card game senior citizens play between rounds of shuffleboard and scotch, and their genre, chamber pop, sounds like a euphemism for a girl losing her virginity. That said, Canasta's November release of their debut album We Were Set Up has the potential to magnetize the young and the old — their flirtatious playing of strings, horns and percussions, joined by an unpredictable melody and the fluid vocals of lead singer Matt Priest, could easily attract a diverse grouping of fans.
Chamber pop surfaced mainly as a reaction to the lo-fi alternative music of the '90s. It derives from the sounds made famous by the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Beatles' Revolver, emphasizing melody and production. Canasta adds a little swing and ska to the mix, compiling three generations of music into one eclectic album. As a whole, We Were Set Up could be described as nothing less than blissful. It consists of 13 harmonized tracks assembled in a collection that allows even the most vanilla of songs to come off as flavorful.
The opening track "Microphone Song" sets the pace for the rest of the album; it melds a variety of instruments with a fluctuating tempo, showing listeners why chamber pop has been nicknamed "bedroom orchestra." The song combines a bouncy chorus with the hard-rock quality that compels listeners to jump up and down with introspective lyrics reminiscent of David Gray.
Canasta has a way of layering the romantic ear candy atop heavier substance, and they weld it all together with infectious melodies and cautious orchestration. They are a post-modern band void of irony. Part classical, part pop, they aren't trying to change the world with their music, but a revolution just might ensue.
"Slow Down Chicago" could do for Canasta's career what "California" did for Phantom Planet's — all they need is to headline a hit TV show. The song paints a vivid picture of the life and landscape of the band's hometown, but it doesn't romanticize the city like it does to Florence in the previous track, "Firenze."
Comparison between these two songs generates a critique on the American city, describing Florence as "the only place on earth / where everyone feels as long as its worth." While, on the other hand, with its resonant organ, layering choir and vulnerable lyrics, "Slow Down Chicago" sketches a somber stance on city life, stating, "This town, it breathes on its own, with or without me / the skyline wakes up the moment I get out of bed." A song that vividly describes an individual breakdown, it could easily be the track that breaks down Canasta's barriers to the mainstream.
The tiptoeing tune "Shadowcat" is a wistful, poetic love song, but cannot compare with the sweet "Just a Star." Lyrically, the latter may be the weakest album on the track, but with Elizabeth Lindau's violin and Megan O'Connor's piano accompanied by Priest's subdued voice, this soft ballad is nothing short of an acoustic delicacy.
Canasta's biggest weakness, though, is that their songs don't automatically capture virgin listeners. They exude a lot of power and a lot of heart, but an average listener's initial reaction to any of their songs is a simple shrug of the shoulders. They don't offer the kind of tunes that will cease compulsive radio-station flipping — it takes time to adjust to their vibe, and patience is not mainstream America's most renowned quality.
If Canasta wants to get popular for Christmas, they'll need to market songs like "An Apology," a short track with a tempo like the Cherry Poppin Daddies' "Zoot Suit Riot" and lyrics that tell a story like a typical OAR track. They'll also have to hide from such flops as "Busride," which begins like all the other power ballads, but for the last minute and a half does nothing but repeat the lines "Next time we speak, you'll be in another city" and "Just call me when you get there, baby." There must be some kind of artistic rationale to this obnoxious repetition, but the average listener is not going to understand.
Even if Canasta fails to make waves nationally, let's hope their popularity stretches a few miles north and hits Madison. Although their album is good, great even, it can't do the band justice for the energy they exude during a live performance, as anyone who caught their Sept. 25 gig at The Annex can confirm. Whether or not they'll be selling out the Kohl Center or simply strumming a few tunes in your friend's attic shouldn't matter, because Canasta, like all the other local groups, is willing to take whatever it can get.