Who can retreat for six years, shake off the residue from abrupt turnabouts and false starts, and return polished? Chicago natives Dianogah, for one. Their 2002 release Millions of Brazilians was tepidly received by critics, but this post-rock trio has since established a more recent catalog of work that’s well worth the listen. Since establishing their roots in Chicago’s indie scene in 1995, the band has weathered rock’s inevitable peaks and nadirs to present qhnnnl — rhymes with “kennel” — on Southern Records.
Taking the mixed reviews seriously without taking them personally, Dianogah decided to veer from their established path of heavily instrumental records like 1997’s As Seen From Above and 2000’s Battle Champions to challenge themselves, and invest a little more time in improving some of the aspects critics complained about.
“In a lot of the reviews that we got for that last record, people would say how bad the vocals were,” explains bassist Jason Harvey. Risking possible heckling from Dianogah purists, says Harvey, the band decided to take a different direction. “We were sort of bored with where we were.”
So Dianogah took a six-year break from recording, putting their energies into refining their style and collaborating to create 12 new tracks, many of which are complimented by a dynamic range of vocals. Although it was a slow way to work and took the greater part of a year to record, no other process could have distilled the adventurous, capacious, emotive tunes comprising qhnnnl. To add a final, though subtle, push in that new direction, the trio opted to collaborate with new musicians.
Fellow Chicagoan Stephanie Morris (of Stephanie Morris & the Rest, the Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, and the Pawners Society) lends her silky voice to a few tracks, and infuses the record with an inimitable dynamism that deepens the perspective of some songs. Billy Smith’s accompanying guitar work on those tracks amplifies their focused gaze.
“A Breaks B” confronts the traditional song structure, challenging it with bassist Jay Ryan and Stephanie Morris’s dual vocals, creating a platform built on chagrin, pardon, and acknowledgement that’s delivered almost subversively at times.
“Sprinter” is a “happy pop song” with which Harvey is quite satisfied. Morris’s airy voice compliments Andrew Bird’s shining, forthright violin accompaniment, balancing the push-and-pull of Dianogah’s bass and drum construction nicely. Scenes from an “adventure on Italian back roads” are punctuated by tragedy and enlightenment, and our ability to emerge from those instants whole is glorious. As the bass work establishes a dense nostalgia, McCabe’s vigorous drums ground us in the present, reminding us that nothing is perfect, because “even the stars here are a mess.”
The circuitous path of “Andrew Jackson” lulls listeners into a self-contained, insular adventure leaning on braying violin encouragement and warning, while the bass and keys team up to lead us back to the beginning. The title track is “probably the least Dianogah-like song on the record,” according to Harvey. In less than three minutes, it’s for sure harder, louder, and more aggressive than the others, and perhaps it brings out the group’s individually shelved musical tendencies, if only briefy.
Though qhnnnl’s gestation was prolonged by the fits and starts that accompany such artistic shifts, completing the record in Chi-Town with producer John McEntire at Soma was critical and helped make weathering those periods easier. Even mastering was a positive experience this time. “It was an obvious choice,” says Harvey of working with Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service, “because he’s here in Chicago, we could actually go to the mastering session, which we haven’t been able to do in the past.”
After a slow beginning and full middle, qhnnnl finishes clean. There’s even a limited white-vinyl run complete with Ryan’s classic silk-screened art for collectors. As for the meaning of the album’s title, those not sated by “it rhymes with kennel,” have some research to do. Though Jason Harvey wasn’t too keen on divulging the secret, he did offer a hint. “Kip’s wife is from Montana,” he said, chuckling, “and it’s local slang for something I’d rather not say.” •