Lost and found

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.

Near and far: The M’s have had an on-again/off-again flirtation with mainstream success.

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.

King of the sad song

by Jason Bugg

“Cinematic” is a word that gets thrown around when describing artists whose output is somewhat more challenging than the standard three-minute pop song. And while it may be a cliché to refer to Mark Kozelek’s music as cinematic, in this case, the term is apt.

Mark Kozelek

Mark Kozelek is not a typical singer/songwriter, and Sun Kil Moon, the band name under which he releases the bulk of his material, is not the typical band. Sure, the gentle strumming of acoustic guitars and simple melodies Kozelek and company play could be mistaken at first for the Jackson Browne-inspired doldrums of times past, but further listens reveal something more complicated, with more depth than the standard-issue coffeehouse crooner. In a world where most music seems to be on par with a Tom Hanks-and-Meg Ryan romantic comedy, Sun Kil Moon is creating sprawling, passionate John Ford epics.

If Kozelek’s mournful sound and propensity for writing hazy gray songs sound familiar, it might be due to his ‘90s output with his former band, The Red House Painters. That band spent the latter half of the decade producing music that was a woeful escape from the first wave of post-Nirvana clones that clogged up the charts and airwaves.

But Sun Kil Moon is a broad step forward in Kozelek’s songwriting, and he truly seems to be getting better with age. His songs now unfold into something rather beautiful, and do so at their own pace. Once a prolific songwriter, he recently revealed in an interview with Gibson.com that “a whole year might go by without my writing anything,” something he attributes to middle-age ennui.

Yet, on Sun Kil Moon’s latest album, April (Caldo Verde Records, 2008), Kozelek continues his exploration of the art of the sad song. Atop the gentle strumming and layers upon layers of acoustic guitars, he ruminates about days gone by, things that could have been, and things that might be. It’s sad music that is uplifting at the same time, and too intelligent to be just the typical boy/girl nonsense and heart-on-sleeve vocals that pass for artistry within popular music.

[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

who: Mark Kozelek
what: Acoustic-guitar driven sad, sad songs
where: Grey Eagle
when: Friday, June 20. Early show: 7 p.m. ($15. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800.)

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.)

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