Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Canasta deals a winning hand in orchestral pop

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For several years now, advertising agencies and Hollywood music directors have had a better track record of championing previously unheralded new artists than the major record companies. So it's no surprise that the widest exposure the local ork-pop band Canasta has had yet is coming from the inclusion of its gorgeous anthem "Slow Down Chicago" in the trailer for the new film "Diminished Capacity."

"But it is totally hilarious to see Matthew Broderick and Alan Alda walking in slow motion to your song," violinist and vocalist Elizabeth Lindau says, laughing.

Though its popularity can be traced to the indie duo Cardinal in the early '90s, the ork- (short for "orchestral-") pop genre has produced some of the best bands in the Chicago underground in the last decade, starting with Yum-Yum and continuing with the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, the 1900's and Head of Femur. Canasta certainly deserves a place on this list, though to hear band co-founder, lead vocalist and trombonist Matt Priest tell it, the sextet's expansive lineup happened as much by chance as plan.

"I actually didn't know Cardinal until I read about them in an article you had written," Priest says. "Sometimes I play horns with the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, and you'd mentioned Cardinal in something you wrote about them. When Canasta started, it was essentially a situation where I had been laid off and I had some extra time. We started calling friends who played music, and it was sort of like if you played an instrument that we didn't already have in the band, you could be in the band.

"In the beginning, it was not like, 'Oh, this band needs a pianist and a keyboardist.' We just got together six people, and at the time, most of us had gone to the same college a few years earlier, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, and we all and ended up in Chicago."

"Obviously, a lot of the time people put strings on in the studio or add them as an afterthought, but part of our idea was to have the violin there from the beginning and for it to be an equal instrument to everything else in the band," Lindau adds. "Not to use it as, like, 'The orchestra comes in here,' but to use it as a voice just like everything else." And that's exactly what the group did on its debut EP, "Find the Time" (2004), and its first full album, "We Were Set Up" (2005).

The group's leaders can be meticulous taskmasters in the rehearsal and recording studios. "Our songwriting process is extremely collaborative and extremely detail-oriented," Lindau confesses. "A lot of time goes into making sure all the parts fit together just perfectly. A lot of times, we'll try Thing A, and then we'll try Thing B, and then we'll have a fight, so we'll be like, 'O.K, let's try Thing C!'" But the result on standout tracks such as "Slow Down Chicago," "Microphone Song" and "Major Tom Coming Home" (a brilliant and funny sequel to David Bowie's "Space Oddity") is effortless, effervescent pop that doesn't call undue attention to its carefully constructed layers of intertwining melodies.

Just how rich the band's sound can be is illustrated by "We Were Mixed Up," a new free-for-the-downloading collection of remixes of earlier songs by friends such as Office and We Can and We Must (www.canastamusic.com). As for the band's second album proper, it's long overdue: One downside of ork-pop is maintaining a large and varied lineup, and Canasta has undergone numerous personnel changes over the last few years. (The current lineup is completed by guitarist Jeremy Beckford, drummer Josh Lava, pianist Kyle Mann and keyboardist Ian Wilson.)

"In the beginning, as I said, it was all just for fun," Priest says. "But once people started getting more serious about it and thinking, 'Wow, we'd like to do this for a living,' and we had to give up all of our free time to do it, that certainly lost a couple of people."

"We wanted to make sure that the new people who were going to be in the band were going to be excited about it, and certainly part of being excited about it means writing it together," Lindau adds. "We wanted to make sure that we had our lineup solid and that the people who were going to record it and tour on it and perform it were going to be excited about it."

Now, the group has "10 or 11 songs about 80 percent done," and it's hoping to issue the new disc before the end of the year. There are plans to tour around the CMJ Music Marathon this fall, and with luck, "Diminished Capacity" will help expand the fan base. Meanwhile, I couldn't help but ask if the musicians have any perspective about why Chicago has become ork-pop central.

"I think a lot of the bands in Chicago have backgrounds of playing, you know, violin in orchestra or trombone in marching bands," Lindau says. "Among people in our generation, there were more school music programs going on, and obviously orchestral pop is called orchestral for a reason. It has a lot of that influence of interweaving melodies and orchestral instruments and all that."

Adds Priest: "I don't know why there seems to be a proliferation of these bands in Chicago particularly, except that it's a pretty supportive scene compared to what I've read about other larger cities, so it's not a big deal to get other people playing on your record or for you to play on other people's records, and pretty soon, you have a bunch of people. Then it's just a matter of using these newfound powers wisely with all the different instruments you have."

FACTS
Canasta with Brighton, MA and Birds Per Hour
10 p.m. Saturday
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Free
(773) 525-2508; www.schubas.com

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The Show is actually on Saturday at Schubas.

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