Chris McCaughan is the mainstay that has connected the masts of Chicago punk since before 1996. Emerging in Tricky Dick and post-Slapstick The Broadways, Chris found his songwriting stride with The Lawrence Arms. Always encapsulating Chicago winters and hardships with an urban optimism, songs like “100 Resolutions”, “Brickwall Views” and “Faintly Falling Ashes” could be the structural supports to a mecca of music Chicago’s created in the past 20 years. They aren’t workingman anthems, as Springsteen would avow to, but introspective passing glimpses into city life as fleeting as an L train; “the city looks the same until you notice smaller changes. It still knows us all by name. It holds us close to its heart.”
What Chris gives us in Sundowner, and especially We Chase the Waves, the follow up to 2007’s Four One Five Two, is the familiar and the comforting. It’s what you experience when you’re with old friends, in a late night diner, or waiting on the platform for the train home in conversation.
“In the Flicker” is a fitting reintroduction after a three-year Sundowner absence. Starting with solitary strumming over rolling claps of thunder, Chris’ voice comes in and resonates more than the hollowed well of the guitar. The natural harmonization of the two lend a quality that few songwriters can achieve, making you hum along before memorizing the lyrics to sing to. “We live in the flicker tonight. We chase away the waves of dawn till we die.” I would not say it’s raw, as much as he’s mastered the balance. It’s evident on “Araby,” where the highs of his verses carry the ears over subtle, modest keys underneath.
We Chase the Waves, compared to his first album, has a much crisp, clearer sound that really draws out Chris’ singing in support of the acoustic. “Tour Self Portrait,” for instance, puts him in a slight relief over Jenny Choi‘s cello. “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (off this album) gives a more round sound, keeping Chris in the center as sonically the slide guitar and strums surround without crowding. Just prior to the quickness regarding the summer classic is campfire melodies accentuated by those dashes of keys of “As the Crow Flies.” Elements of pop punk serves the folk songs well, creating compelling choruses simple enough to memorize, and addictive enough to hit repeat again and again. “I’ve got heat, I’ve got embers, I’ve got spark. You’ve got stars overhead, I’ve got a windchill well below negative ten.” For example, notice how people hypnotically harmonize over The Greatest Story Ever Told‘s “Fireflies”.
With “Jewel of the Midwest” and “Mouth of a Tiger,” Chris pulls Sundowner farther from The Lawrence Arms. It’s much needed as the debut album featured acoustic versions of the Larry Arms’ “One Hundred Resolutions” and “Boatless Booze Cruise (Part 1)”, which Brendan Kelly originally sang. “Jewel…” charges forward into the frozen Midwestern air like a late night run for a heated apartment; with focus straight to the end.
While the years have given us solo projects from many Chicago musicians, Sundowner’s digging itself its own path out of the packed snow of punks present and past for something clear, crisp and warming at the same time.