In 2006, The M’s had the buzz. You know: a new album on taste-making label Polyvinyl, choice slots at the South by Southwest festival, gigs opening for Wilco and indie love from Pitchfork Media. Even filmmaker Jonathan Demme was getting all fanboy about the group, aiming to shoot a video for the Chicago quartet.
Then The M’s vanished.
“We played Lollapalooza that year and played one more show after that in the fall,” says drummer Steve Versaw, who’s also one of the band’s four songwriters. He’s talking into his phone from happy hour at Simon’s Tavern, a garrulous dive on the Second City’s north side. In the background, a jukebox cranks the Stones—something off Some Girls, or maybe Tattoo You. “We took a huge break after that,” he adds over the noise. “We didn’t even get together a lot.”
Versaw offers up the usual suspects: new kids, new wives, new side projects. But he also talks of group fatigue and the frayed relations that inevitably follow. Like a veteran teammate, however, he cops to the former and merely hints at the latter: “Yeah, there were times when I wasn’t sure if we were ever getting back together.”
The next day bassist Joey King adds a little shading to Versaw’s sketch. The M’s, he explains, is a basement-recording project by nature—in other words, they’re total studio rats. And when the foursome tried to mutate into professionals by touring and performing the same 12 songs over and over, it almost derailed them.
Well, The M’s are back and fully rested. And they’ve just dropped a new album, Real Close Ones, which is their most carefully crafted to date. It might also end up being their most successful.
Of course, some touring, as Polyvinyl would surely agree, is always needed and expected. But both Versaw and King claim times have changed; the band is done running multiple laps around America. It’s back to the studio as quickly as possible, because that’s where they belong.
This is bad news for fans outside of Chicago, but necessary for the group’s health. On the road, they were smashing their heads against a wall that couldn’t be toppled. Despite achieving a modest degree of success, a quirky act like The M’s is unlikely blow up in an age when indie rock whittles itself into an increasingly narrow aesthetic: U2-meets-Radiohead-meets-Gang of Four—or some such sonically ambiguous cocktail.
Instead, The M’s produce a unique version of power pop—an admittedly nebulous genre that has generated an impressive list of critically praised flops over the years, from Teenage Fanclub and The Posies to Big Star and the granddaddies of them all, The Move. Exactly why all these awesome bands struggled for mass acceptance might take the entire Arts & Entertainment section to explain. What’s important is that Real Close Ones, whether The M’s like it or not, only draws the band closer to this lineage.
The front line of King and guitarists Robert Hicks and Josh Chicoine has always boasted the kind of layered, Brit-inspired harmonies required of any power-pop act worth its salt. But not until now, after eight years of jamming together, have the M’s cultivated the sound’s defining ingredient: that elusive balance of hard-rock heft and classic songcraft. On nearly every track, with “Pigs Fly” and “How Could You” serving as particular highlights, the band feels on the verge of discharging some Phil Spector-inspired blast of fuzz and reverb. Yet they hold back, always mindful not to pummel their elegant melodies and finely tailored compositions, which are the show’s real stars.
“When you think so much about craft, it takes away from raw aggression,” Versaw explains. “We have the ability to crush through things. But there’s a little more musicianship, a little more knowledge this time around.”
[Justin Farrar is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: The M’s opening for Centro-matic
what: Hook-laden indie rock
where: Grey Eagle
when: Friday, June 20. 10 p.m. ($8. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800.)