Eschewing traditional band makeups but not their intent or intensity, Small Awesome work their asses off to present music of quality, character and correctness that can fill a room with whispers or roars.
SONGER, the objectively good new album from Small Awesome, features ten compositions, assembled into an arc of moments to provide a full and dynamic listening experience
Like comfortability sprung unto action, Small Awesome evolved from two guys working together in a basement to craft songs and compositions into, well, that – but better. Eschewing traditional band makeups but not their intent or intensity, Small Awesome work their asses off to present music of quality, character and correctness that fill the room with whispers or roars with simple strings and voices (mostly). The listeners sway and swoon yet their visceral parts remain happy. And if you’ve heard Faiz sing, goddamn.
The objectively good new album from Small Awesome, SONGER, features ten compositions assembled into an arc of moments to provide a full and dynamic listening experience. Staying true to the core tenets of Small Awesome’s previous work, SONGER unfurls organically as a musical soundtrack that runs from pastoral and sweeping to brittle and intense, featuring a minimum of key flourish. Available on vinyl and digital from Sick Room Records.
With a paralleled history in Chicago-based rock bands, Faiz Razi and Jim MacGregor first ran into each other musically in 2007 as sidemen for the eponymous *JOESEPI* band. With Razi playing keys and MacGregor on bass, they ID’ed a kinship first in music and extending onward and upward.
This was fortuitous time spent: Razi’s previous musical venture DANGER ADVENTURE (guitar/keys/vocals) resolved itself in 2006, and MacGregor was angling to take on additional projects in tandem with CENTURY ROCKET BUILDING (bass). In the summer of 2008 they began a series of sessions in Razi’s basement with the intent of collaborating on a musical project. A half-dozen rounds throughout the back part of the year demonstrated a free and easy working relationship, netting a dozen compositions for guitar (or ukulele) and bass. Agreeing that something was working pretty well here, Razi and MacGregor continued to write throughout 2009.
Thoughts naturally turned to a future beyond writing. After debating the merits of expanding the lineup, both in playing and recording, they agreed that it would be a good starting point to just record the songs as they knew them best – as a duo. Commencing recording at the infamously underground Caffeinated Recordings on 12/12/09, Razi and MacGregor warmed to the notion of excluding any permanent additional instrumentation, though the recording process was peppered with a little cello here, a little slide guitar there.
This decision was further validated by opportunities to play live as a duo. Taking such show offers as a sign, the duo, now known as Small Awesome, continued to both perform live and work on the studio recordings throughout 2010. The set of compositions known as Still Awesome was recorded, mixed and mastered by the deft hands and massively capable brain of Matt Engstrom, and was finished on 12/12/10, one literal year after starting.
As show offers continued to arise, there was one sour note – an initial offer to press their debut to vinyl fell through. In quick form, the duo went ahead and split the album down the middle, releasing the Awesome EP on April 15, 2011, followed by the Still EP on May 3, 2012. Both CD releases are notable not only for the content but for their hand-assembly with screen-printed wood and aircraft-quality aluminum covers.
An example of a review from Pocket Jury (UK):
“Unsurprisingly, their debut album is a remarkable experience. It’s an odd blend of pastoral beauty and sublimely orchestrated menace which is memorable after two listens, compelling after three and indispensible after four. Subversion of expectations is the overriding characteristic of Still Awesome…by and large there are only two musicians playing on each song but unlike most duos, the songs feel complete. The robust nature of the compositions means that there is never a point whereby you find yourself waiting for the rest of the band to kick in. Some tracks feature acoustic guitar and, heaven forbid, ukulele but it never sounds remotely twee. Razi’s voice is soothing and pleasant but the disconcerting lyrics and subtly unnerving musical accompaniment precludes it from being particularly relaxing. The songs are predominantly hypnotic tapestries of spindly guitar notes and looping bass motifs which are once gorgeous and distinctly unsettling. Most of the tracks on Still Awesome have a serpentine quality – gently but firmly engulfing the listener in a manner which manages to be both sensual and deadly.”
Since leaving the basement, Small Awesome has performed with periods of regularity and irregularity, waxing and waning between child-rearing, mortgages, advanced degrees and writing/recording efforts. Nonetheless, Small Awesome has experienced an impressive array of performances – from opening for the likes of Crooked Fingers, Mike Watt, Retribution Gospel Choir and Breathe Owl Breathe and performing for Chicago-centric audiences at Schuba’s, Hideout, Beat Kitchen, Quenchers, Metropolis, Live Wire as well as regular participation in PRFBBQ events from 2011 onward and numerous other related PRF bills. They will continue to be active in perpetuity.
Further listening: Farm Team; Danger Adventure; Century Rocket Building; BooKoos; The Hype!; Faiz Zeppelin; Light Coma; Walking Shadow; Tourism; Bully Pulpit
Razi and MacGregor swiftly resumed writing and arranging, with another foray into Caffeinated Recordings in late 2012, resulting in some good but ultimately unsatisfying results. Out of this session, new tracks were released individually as part of two compilations – Caffeinated Recordings Vol. IV (2012) and Lake Of Fake PRF Quarter 6 (2013). In between these two releases, SA continued to develop new compositions, refining them at consistent pace throughout 2013.
In February 2014, SA, along with studio confidante Matt Engstrom tracked the bulk of the new material at Reelsounds, under the care of owner and engineer Mouse. Over the course of the next year, several rounds of rewriting, editing, re-recording and new recording commenced in their Irving Park rehearsal space. Already irreplaceable, Engstrom proved himself to be as near a member of Small Awesome as a non-playing participant could be. The resulting recordings are objectively good music. Staying true to the core tenets of Small Awesome’s previous work, the track order unfurls organically as a musical soundtrack that runs from pastoral and sweeping to brittle and intense, featuring a minimum of key flourish.
Nearing completion, the new album known as SONGER sparked the interest of Ryan Duncan, a friend of the group and owner/operator of Sick Room Records, with Duncan offering to release the album on his label.
With final mixing completed in late winter 2015, mastering via Chicago Mastering Service by early summer 2015, SONGER was sent into the Gold Rush of 21st Century’s Vinyl Rage Adolescence. Like a prodigal son making good, SONGER returned to SA and Sick Room Records in February 2016 and will be released on vinyl/digital to all on March 26, supported by live appearances throughout 2016.