Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States. That population is very diverse. This means that the city has its own cultural platform, providing slices of thoroughbred Americana in its own distinct way. Indeed, it has all the ingredients that outisiders associate with New York. Both betray a tough, photogenic romance that it is ripe for local pride and those outsiders’ distant sentiments.
Chicago can also be recognized as the birthplace of modern electronic dance music. Interestingly, it is reported that a demanding Sun Ra once told his musicians that he would replace them with the drum machines pioneered in the city if they didn’t play to his liking. Further more, despite the rage evident on the city’s Disco Demolition Night, the Chicago house scene of the mid-1980s broke musical and cultural boundaries, bringing together men and women, black and white, and gay and straight, in a flurry of non-stop ecstatic dancing and drug taking.
When exported to Europe, Ibiza and, by 1988, to the British countryside, this became a revolution in popular culture, a challenge to Thatcher, which owed a great deal to the ethos of the 1960s. The movement, however, suffered from serious side-effects. One, a charming, if platitudinous, pseudo-spiritual gumption about unity. Two, the Criminal Justice Bill, which streamlined the movement into a money-making machine and spurred British superclub culture until its demise at the start of the 21st century. The children of methamphetamine woke up the next morning with mild, aimless depression.
Chicago is Efdemin’s second LP. His output is diverse, cerebral, and progressive. It is open to headphone honchos, but, equally at home on the dancefloor, it’s never self-serious or too satisfied with its own intelligence. There is, however, a central conflict between the album’s title and its content, a clear contradiction between directly referring to the Windy City, with all its cultural connotations and the city’s pivotal place in the history of electronic dance music, and being encased in a distinctly German minimalist aesthetic. Nevertheless, ‘Chicago’ seems to allude to a more general urban experience.
Like the cities we live in, the album is at times claustrophobic and oppressive. Moments of clarity are interrupted by a variety of distractions. Here, these take the form of detuned synth stabbings, hollow sirens, or the caffeinated jitter of run-on beats. On “Shoeshine”, these distractions are organic, more to do with human faculties than the machines that regulate our lives. Here, close interaction between percussion and jazz-inspired cymbal play contests the rigid, compressed, electronic drum structures. The album is full of crevices, back alleys, and unkempt hallways, as on opener “Cowbell” or “Oh My God”. The former is a murder mystery of a track, sheathed in the city’s smog that obscures our exploration. It is permeated by warped vibes playing far removed from the joy usually associated with the instrument. The latter creeps through the city, a strolling jazz suite, in search of things that crawl. It is eventually undercut by a busker’s mournful playing.
Indeed, on Chicago, Efdemin depicts a city of burst pipes and open windows that reveal its citizens’ taste in music without ever creating a clichéd period piece about run-down tenements or gun-wielding gangsters. The album invites the listener to take part in the musical experience, yet it conceals much of its intentions. At 76 minutes, this means that getting inside Chicago isn’t easy work.
“Night Train”, however, takes the familiarity of the trans-European express adventure, the concentric, circular, rhythms of travel, and applies it to something newer, faster, and shinier. The sonorous pop that punctuates the track is always another landmark passed and forgotten. Its polyrhythms are always the hypnosis of routine. Ultimately, it implies that, like many albums of this ilk, and many albums created by Efdemin’s contemporaries, Chicago is well, if not best, suited to soundtracking travel.
Overall, while the energy required to fully appreciate the scope of the record is likely to be too much for too many people, Chicago is certainly a success. It’s more secluded and subtle than Efdemin’s self-titled debut and, where ‘Lohn & Brot’ or ‘Le Ratafia’ from that record were instantly accessible without forfeiting their intelligence, Chicago, as a whole, internalizes its melodic intentions. Chicago’s vision is more sustained, subtle, and stately. It asks questions while taking us on a guided tour of our own cities. This, itself, will prompt further questions, further investigation, and further interest in urbanism.