Gastr del Sol: Harp Factory on Lake Street
Is 90s nostalgia underway yet? If not, this reissue may be just the thing to get it started. In 1994, Chicago is the fountainhead for a bona-fide Scene, in which bands are giving timbre and texture priority over riffs and power chords. To the chagrin of many, the press will label it all "post-rock." It's the definitive movement of the decade, and front and center are Gastr del Sol, comprised of David Grubbs (previously: Squirrel Bait, Bastro) and Jim O'Rourke (subsequently: Wilco, Sonic Youth). Some of their city-mates may shift more units; Gastr, with a relentless drive for reinvention, shift the boundaries of where a band can go. Avant punk, atonal song-styling, musique concrète, delicate piano-guitar interplay, raw electronics and modernist chamber music -- all are fair terrain, traversed with subtlety and finesse. Behind the obligatory horn-rims, Grubbs and O'Rourke have "vision."
A dozen years later, this overdue reissue of 1994's _The Harp Factory on Lake Street_ EP provides the missing piece in Gastr's otherwise available discography. To hear it again is a treat. It's their notorious "big band" record, and the ten-piece ensemble is a veritable All-Star team of mid-90s Chicagoans, including members of Tortoise, Sea and Cake, Shellac, Dazzling Killmen, Brise Glace and the Vandermark 5; through studio maneuvering courtesy O'Rourke and engineer John McEntire, they blossom into a small-sized orchestra. Remarkably confident in the use of space and dissonance, _Harp Factory_ also emphasizes the conceptual "scrape", the friction between nuance and noise, that plays such a prominent role in Gastr's subsequent _Upgrade and Afterlife_ LP. Familiar signposts are still in sight -- O'Rourke's compositional skills, Grubbs' associative, absurdist musings -- but this is definitely their boldest outing. It's a record full of blissful confoundment, one that aptly vivifies the spirit of an era. Gastr del Sol may have lasted a brief five years, but they are to the 1990s what the Magic Band, This Heat and Sonic Youth were to their respective decades: intrepid trailblazers through the backwoods of sound.