Courtesy of Company of Thieves
Company of Thieves – “Oscar Wilde”
Sometimes when musicians try to look intelligent by making literary references, the attempt has the exact opposite effect. The first song that comes to mind is Taylor Swift’s crossover mega-hit “Love Story.” Somewhere along the line, it seems as if Swift failed to learn that Romeo and Juliet are star-crossed lovers, meaning their lives are a string of tragedies, not happy endings. Unlike the uplifting tale told by the poppy country tune, the play ends with a lot of blood and tears. And for the record, Miss Swift, your line “You were Romeo, I was a scarlet letter” makes no sense. Hester Prynne – who, last I checked, was absent from Shakespeare’s classic – was an adulterous woman with a slightly demonic child, and that has very little to do with the message you’re trying to convey.
Enter Company of Thieves, a trio from Chicago that has a better grip on the literary world. “Oscar Wilde,” the single from the group’s debut album, Ordinary Riches, makes muted references to some of the same themes – including the inescapability of time and shallowness – as the author’s works. But lines about “porcelain teacups” and waltzing on front porches, especially when paired with singer Genevieve Schatz’s breathy, emotive voice, balance out the heavy tones and brighten the repeated line, “We are all our own devil and we make this world our hell.”
But this darkness doesn’t pervade everything by the group. “New Letters” gives a heart-wrenching account of someone who refuses to give up on a relationship, relishing its most simplistic elements. “I fell in love when you were brushing your teeth / Over my kitchen sink,” Schatz nearly whispers as the song opens. The track crescendos until its final note, when Schatz sounds as if her own determination might break her.
It’s the backing from guitarist Marc Walloch and drummer Mike Ortiz that really adds dimension to what could otherwise be classified as simple ditties. Just when you think you’ve figured out Company of Thieves, the band refuses to concede to your expectations. After a long pause in “Under the Umbrella” that seems to signal the end of the song, a rock riff on the guitar starts the whole thing up again and takes it in a brand new direction. The album includes three acoustic versions of songs, on which the group successfully experiments with soulful piano chords and violins instead of the traditionally rock-friendly guitar and drums.
Although Schatz usually sounds like a sweeter, less guttural Regina Spektor, she boasts a wide variety of vocal talent, nearly wailing over the drum fills and minor chords of “Old Letters.” Company of Thieves isn’t afraid to ignore the unwritten rule that the folk-pop-rock set should start out with short-and-sweet tunes. These shifts in vocals, instrumentation and tempo work to make each song an expansive landscape, and nearly half of the album’s tracks run past the five-minute mark.
The Windy City has become a sort of mecca for outstanding, intelligent people. Actor/director/producer/wonderman Zach Braff graduated from the city’s Northwestern University; Oprah Winfrey and President Obama call the place home. Schatz and co. may not be as well-known as any of these folks, but they certainly have the talent and intellect to someday join these prestigious ranks.
–By Entertainment Editor Ani Vrabel