Cinematic soundworld

With three smart records, Chicago's Pinetop Seven has earned its stripes as one of the more noteworthy experimental bands to come out in years, even in a city that's already noted for compelling musical experimentation. And Pinetop Seven wears those stripes well -- a lot better than it wears the No Depression country label the band has been stuck with.

Maybe the group's just been tagged in a knee-jerk reaction to the growing fixation with holler rock and the aural deserts of spaghetti westerns. The label can be deceiving, painting over much of the vast territory the trio actually covers.

"I don't understand it either," arranger and multi-instrumentalist Charles Kim says. "We've never disavowed it, but it's one of like 20 things we listen to. When we cut our first two records, the thing we listened to most was Astor Piazzola. On our first record, there happened to be a cowboy. At the time, there were some roots influences, but the first song on that record sounds like a Charlie Mingus tune. But because there happened to be this No Depression planet floating around, we were sucked into its orbit.

"There was nothing else to really compare it to, which doesn't surprise me," he concludes.

Pinetop Seven is good at setting up scenarios -- like the cowboy duel -- to inform its music, but it doesn't quite work the other way around. On the group's latest record, Rigging the Top Lights, the songs are split into two, maybe three interlocked cycles. The first five songs, from the instrumental "Wake" to "The Rust in His Step," are filled with a youthful desperation that ages into wistful dreaming, then into a sort of acceptance on "Empty Hands and the Long Walk Home." All these movements happen near "chimes outside the door/ flies on the bed, the meanest blue/ hanging overhead" (from "Drying Out") or even more deserted pictures -- like a sound track that never thought it needed the film.

A majority of these images, designed and delivered by vocalist Darren Richard, appear most vividly against Kim's shadowy soundscapes. (The two were a duo before they were joined by Edith Frost bass player Ryan Hembrey after their second record No Breath in the Bellows.) And that's where Rigging the Top Lights really gets interesting.

"We don't think about styles of music," Kim says. "We concentrate on telling stories and painting pictures and having some sort of cinematic depth. And if that means it involves a 3/4 tango or a free-form Sun Ra sort of collage, then that's what we'll do, try to use the tools and not let the tools use us."

Pinetop Seven's richly informed appreciation of film and music goes a long way toward explaining why its approach stimulates imagination, instead of flagging down listeners at all the pretentious points of reference. The pictures may have dusty backgrounds, but the music with obvious influences such as Captain Beefheart, Angelo Badalamenti, Bernard Herrmann and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch -- is no more country than spaghetti is western.

"The funny thing is (spaghetti western music) isn't even American music," Kim says. "It's Italian music. It's a really screwed-up interpretation on the part of Italians trying to capture the American West. They weren't talking about tumbleweeds and stagecoaches; they were concentrating on how ruthless and amoral the frontier was, which is what you hear in that sort of stark landscape. And that is what I'm talking about when I say you use the story to tell the music."

If there is any link between cinematic explorations that reach toward symphonic tango or avant-garde and the cheap pursuit of No Depression country, it's only in a couple of names dropped in articles and bios, not in the music itself. Fortunately, Pinetop Seven offers a lot more than some hipster venture into the American West by way of Blockbuster Video. And besides that, it's a comfort knowing that somebody is finally talking about Ennio Morricone in a context that makes sense. Norene Cashen writes about music for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]

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