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Audio Reviews
by Dianogah
Southern Records (2008)
Looking over the C.V. of Chicago trio Dianogah is like reading an abbreviated Who’s Who of the Windy City’s independent music scene. From 1995 to the present, drummer Kip McCabe and bassists Jason Harvey and Jay Ryan have cut four full-length albums with a variety of well- and sorta-known Illinoisemakers. People like musician-engineers Steve Albini, John McEntire, and Bob Weston; whistling multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird; Coctails members Mark Greenberg and John Upchurch; Rachel Grimes of Rachel’s; Stephanie Morris of The Pawners’ Society; Hubcap’s Billy Smith.

It’s quite the cast of characters, and my list-happy introduction is less an instance of name-dropping than an acknowledgement of the sense of community that surrounds Dianogah as a band. Like Baltimore, D.C., San Jo, Atlanta, and just about any urban area with a large per capita number of musicians, everyone tends to get to know one another. People play at the same shows, hang out at the same venues, record at the same studios, and cut records with the same labels. To borrow a term from corporate America—and hopefully avoid the sticky handshake feeling it often evokes—musicians spend a lot of time networking.

This whole communal aspect of music-making has doubtless had a profound influence on, and been influenced by, Dianogah’s Jay Ryan. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the music of Dianogah, you’ve probably encountered Ryan’s work at some point or another. Specifically: Ryan’s posters and album covers, designed and produced through his self-owned Chicago-based print studio, The Bird Machine. A hobby turned means of self-promotion, The Bird Machine has long since grown from its basement beginnings to become a mainstay of Midwestern poster art, with over a hundred posters and a hundred and thirty-four squirrels to its credit. Not to mention gallery shows, international tours, and a retrospective book. Those are nice, too.

I admit that it is an odd juxtaposition to set a band up against the means by which one of its member’s makes a living, and I’d like to make it plain that I’m not sowing seeds of discord. This is not an instance of “don’t quit your day job” tongue-clicking, or a disciple’s complaint against public indifference towards a worthy group of auteurs. There’s a point to all this; there’s always a point.

First and foremost, let’s face it: Dianogah is a hard sell. This should be an obvious statement for a band built around a beefed-up rhythm section of two bassists and a drummer. Two bassists? I mean, c’mon—who needs a second bass guitar? That’s just crazy talk.

It is a novel idea, I suppose, that eight strings in the key of F—four with the cutting brightness of a Rickenbacker, four with the full-bodied thump of a flat wound Fender Jazz—can dance and duel around intuitively fluid percussion in certifiably upbeat arrangements. It’s certainly not the most common of musical tropes. But is there a market for it?

“Does there need to be a market?” would probably be the more appropriate question, and a more accurate assessment of how Dianogah operates as a band. Exhibit A, a 2001 interview in which bassist Jay Ryan stated that Dianogah

“Feels like we’ve succeeded—we succeeded a while ago. The big goal was to be able to get a band and be able to travel, play shows, and have the band pay for itself—where we’re able to do what we enjoy doing and not go broke doing it.”

That’s a refreshingly sober view for a musician to have. Even so, it seems appropriate, even pragmatic, when you consider the music industry’s rapid deflation since the alternative-rock glory days of the 1990s. Moreover, when you take the stressors of money and multi-album record deals out of the equation, your hobby has the freedom to remain just that: a leisure activity, something you do with your friends for (gasp!) fun.

That seems to be the whole point of Dianogah’s music, both in their charming turns of phrase and in their unobtrusively optimistic instrumentation. Mellow mood-setters with an oft-withheld gift for lyricism—for playing “tug of war with the hand of God” while standing on “rickety legs of twigs and rusted iron”—Dianogah has remained a constant, calming center in the midst of Chicago’s ever-growing and -shifting post-rock storm. Though more direct than Tortoise and less concrète than Gastr Del Sol, Dianogah is similarly attendant to concepts that can only rarely be captured by mere consonants and vowels. Theirs is music as an implied feeling, with the explicitness of lyrics as a secondary concern.

Really, the classic Dianogah cocktail is a subtle concoction that is both heavily textured and marvelously smooth. Take a shot of Ryan’s humming tones and Harvey’s flexible bass lines, pour liberally over McCabe’s brisk, spacious, and snappy percussion; when desired, mix in Ryan’s plain-spoken vocals (alternatively, add more bass); shake briskly, and serve.

For Dianogah’s newest offering, qhnnnl—their fourth proper album and first since 2002’s Millions of Brazilians—the trio has decided to make a few changes to the recipe. For starters, they’ve put a lot more emphasis on the vocals, alternately pairing and replacing Ryan’s self-aware semi-mumble with similarly staid intonations from album aid and touring friend Stephanie Morris, plus or minus shout-along back-ups by Mark Greenberg and Billy Smith. Greenberg also adds keys to a few tracks, which are a light embellishment (organs, synth, and keys previously appeared in Millions of Brazilians, courtesy of John McEntire and Rachel Morris) compared to the jarring appearance of Andrew Bird’s pizzicato and bowed violin, not to mention the occasional hints of effects pedals and headlong forays into heavy, punk-ish riffing.

Yeah, you heard me. Riffing.

Considering the consistency of previous Dianogah offerings like Battle Champions and “Hannibal”, it’s easy to say that qhnnnl is, well, different. Then again, such is to be expected when there is a span of six years between studio albums. Times change, and people with them; bands are comprised of people—ipso facto, bands change with time. The longer the stretch, the bigger the opportunity for change. That’s life, right?

Without a doubt, qhnnnl is an exciting sign of growth in Dianogah’s compositional abilities. There is safety in stasis, true, and comfort in continually refining a proven sound, but the true test of a band’s mettle is in reinvention, in taking the same old elements and not only rearranging and repositioning them, but in deciding what to let go and what to add in. For Dianogah, qhnnnl is the act of climbing out on that proverbial limb, nervous and shaking but determined not to look down. It is change as the risk of falling and, who knows, maybe even breaking a leg.

Even so, album opener “Oneone” comes off as an updated version of Dianogah Classic™, with Ryan’s and Harvey’s rumbling bass lines trading off open-string thumps and low-neck tones while McCabe’s ever-apropos percussion flares and settles in the background. In another notable change, Bob Weston’s mastering is a bit splashier than previous Dianogah recordings, with more emphasis on sharp notes, snapping snare, and bright cymbals—it ups the bass and tightens the tone, but can occasionally add an unwelcome tinny-ness to the higher end. Moreover, Ryan’s erstwhile muddy vocals are now set front and center in the mix. He even makes the occasional attempt at crooning, and none-too-shabbily at that.

A Breaks B” marks the first on-album appearance of Andrew Bird and Stephanie Morris, and is the welcoming precipice before the sharp drop of qhnnnl’s title track. The standard Dianogah components—calming vocals, dynamic bass lines, motile percussion—are all present and accounted for in “A Breaks B”, with Morris’s vocals riding side by side with Ryan’s while Bird’s plucked strings and drawn notes hang back ‘til the latter half of the song. In stark contrast, “qhnnnl”’s stylistic nods to the Melvins and Meshuggah eschew the slow-and-melodic approach of older Dianogah material, replacing it with explosive drums, chugga-chugga bass reverb, and prominent overdriven riffs. Feel free to throw some horns if you must, but try not to take it too seriously.

That might as well be the mantra of qhnnnl, as the heavy-metal aspects of the album’s titular track segue into a snippet of in-studio nerdiness (an abbreviated cover of Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”) before launching into the thumping kick, warbling bass, and violin accents of “Andrew Jackson”.

“Sprinter” is another dose of standard-issue Dianogah with a few new tricks, courtesy of Bird’s looping pizzicato and Morris’s lovely vocals, which are eerily similar to Ryan’s flat, plainly sung-spoken delivery (a plus for transitioning to live performances). “I Like Juice in a Shark Suit” also plays with rough riffage and distortion, though, once you break through the hard candy shell of tone-jacking reverb, the creamy core is pure Dianogah bass-bass-drum goodness. The same can be said for “¿Es Posible Fuego?”, which occupies a pleasant median between the previous two tracks. Though its heavy bass backing, chiming notes, and typography- and meat-alluding lyrics occasionally give way to affected rumbling, “¿Es Posible Fuego?” sticks to the straight-and-narrow of catchy bass lines and poppy percussion.

The use of (s)punk-y organ, heady bass distortion, and infectious shout-along vocals—“This is how we fight! This is howwwwwww!!!”—in “You Might Go Off” is one of the most blatant departures for Dianogah, and by all means one of the best on qhnnnl. Like “Snowpants” and “Puma”, the harder edge of “You Might Go Off” is a welcome surprise from a band more accustomed to steady noodling than rapid-fire attacks, and its rough-and-tumble approach certainly plays well to a live audience.

After some cute toddler burbling, the quick and catchy “Song You Hate” again takes up the more experimental mantle of the new qhnnnl-era Dianogah, throwing down some slick licks from guest guitarist Billy Smith overtop punchy bass and percussion. Keep your ears open for evidence of the guys actually having fun in the studio—you can clearly hear an amazed-sounding “shit!” and good-natured laughing after one particularly tight riff.

Last but certainly not least, the ambient “Mongrel” affects a watery delay most commonly heard from Tortoise’s Jeff Parker and Doug McCombs, and the multi-channel effects for Ryan’s and Harvey’s individual bass lines, while effectively paired with McCabe’s always-impressive percussion, are similarly reminiscent of Tortoise tracks like “Djed” and “Seneca”. It’s a nice overall effect, though the general spacey-ness of the track feels somewhat misplaced in light of qhnnnl’s harder edge. It’s not a mistake, per se; it’s just not as cohesive as it should be.

At album’s end, qhnnnl leaves us with a Dianogah that is both actively performing and willing to take a few risks, even while the core philosophy of the band has not really changed. As ever, Dianogah is a group of friends (and friends of friends) who do what they do not because it pays their rent or ingratiates them with “the scene”, but simply because they have fun doing it.

It’s not a job; it is a hobby that pays for itself. Zero obligations, infinite possibilities—personally, I can't think of a more perfect arrangement.
Posted by: Tom Körp

Audio Reviews (September 14th, 2008)

Tags: audio, review, dianogah, qhnnnl, southern records