Chicago Underground Duo

Boca Negra

(Thrill Jockey; 2010)

By Conrad Amenta | 22 February 2010

Chicago’s musical discussion is vigorous and atypical—a sort of antithesis to New York’s stylistic self-consciousness, if you’ll allow me to poke a stick in the eye of that particular rivalry—with Thrill Jockey acting as a kind of interlocutor to the city’s various world, jazz, and rock variants and hybrids. So it’s no surprise that Chicago Underground Duo, a band that arises out of a very specific intersection of not just jazz and rock but the feedback loop of jazz and rock and post-rock, would call Thrill Jockey home. Add to that the amusingly acronymed CUD’s various interactions and connections with Tortoise, which are telling and fascinating to parse as each band seems to provide familial but flipped illustrations of the other, and what one comes away with is an important sense of proud localism. Boca Negra, what might be their clearest identification with these grey spaces, is like a love song to Chicago’s essential ambiguities.

Still led, these ten plus years later, by Chicago icons Rob Mazurek and Chad Taylor, Boca Negra‘s vital interplay of overdubs, electronics, and a kind of traditional free-form jazz bleeds multiform from Chicago’s many intersections, as hybridized with world music and rock polyrhythms as Tortoise, if with a more linear scope and vision. How the groove develops from vague, contrapuntal strikes into the addictive central movements of “Green Ants” and “Confliction” comes from a sort of naturalism bred of years performing in a scene as competitive and pulsating as Chicago’s. Elsewhere, the spaciousness of “Left Hand of Darkness” and the beautiful “Hermeto” evokes a European minimalism or Scandinavian ambient, not unlike 2009 powerhouse Lokai (also, it should be noted, on Thrill Jockey). Connections are being made all over the damn place, with Chicago a sort of central node on a global electrical grid.

Can an album be both combinative of elsewheres and very much rooted? In this essential paradox is the lasting appeal of Chicago’s complex scene. To the degree to which the following is even possible, Boca Negra seems simultaneously evocative of both the styles of other locales and of Chicago’s love of evocation. See: “Spy on the Floor,” acting as album centerpiece, hammily driving through cinematic posture, only to be followed by “Laughing with the Sun,” which sounds like a kind of drugged out Konono No. 1. There’s something about the dynamism of that shift that seems integral.

It’s only a little bit ironic that we’d find in a ten-year-old band evidence of our music-sampling, commercially peripatetic culture. While audience and critics wrap their heads around these supposedly new spaces and networks of accumulation, interpretation, and elaboration, Chicago hums along on its merry way, doing that very thing just like it has for years. CUD aren’t the first or best among many, but what you can hear when you listen to Boca Negra—in addition to a really excellent neo-jazz record—is the sounds of a band improvising while actually not really improvising. They’re unconsciously pulling from something rich and energetic and fundamental to the way we appreciate music. If you want to find that artistic lifeblood, that spirit about which we only now speak in elegies, they’re as good a place to start as any.