The Sleepers revel in classic rock and roll hedonism

I was pretty sure I was going to like Comeback Special from Chicago band The Sleepers before I even cracked open the CD. *

The cover has a vaguely bootlegged look to it like The Who’s Live At Leeds. Prominently displayed on the cover is the band’s logo, faux-rubber-stamped over a phonograph. Not a distinguished old-timey one that might have a dog peering into it, but one of those 70s down-market deals that proves that albums only sound better than CDs when you have 10K worth of stereo equipment behind them.

The back of the CD insert apes the look of a taped-up set list next to a picture of the band. The bassist is the most flamboyantly dressed of the five, while the lead singer is outfitted in what appears to be a sweater vest, button-down and corduroys. This makes so little sense that it must be true.

The easiest, laziest criticism against what The Sleepers are doing is that there’s nothing particularly ground-breaking going on here, though you could level the same critique at The Detroit Cobras, The Bellrays or The Goldstars, three bands who – like The Sleepers – take all the pieces necessary for a rock-and-roll, barroom-stomp style and put it together in such a way that it doesn’t sound like a retread.

Comeback Special is the band’s 2nd full-length after Push It Nationwide. The songs are full of crunchy guitar riffs crackling over bottom-heavy grooves as the lyrics repeatedly invoke the Holy Troika of Rock Problems (women – of legal age and otherwise – booze, and cigarettes). 70s rock shibboleths are offered from the MC5-style guitar lines to the Freddie Mercury-esque shouts of “Yeah!” on “Loaded” and “Jailbait,” to the direct line that can be drawn from Cheap Trick’s “Southern Girls” to The Sleepers’ “Filthy Ways.” These are bombastic, anthemic songs that revel in weekend-warrior vice.

The Sleepers manage to transcend their influences precisely because of all these winking nods at what came before. It’s the difference between a band that knows what it’s doing when it plays a certain way and a band that plays a certain way because it doesn’t know any better.

Comeback Special works because The Sleepers studied hard in rock school, then pissed off their professors because they turned out to be a little smarter.

The Sleepers’ Comeback Special is out now. Tracks from their album are available via its MySpace page. Their CD release party is March 8th at Double Door. Opening will be The Regrets, The Cocksmiths, and Whiskey Blonde, which sounds about right, actually.

* My own personal barometer for this decision-making – hinted at here – is worth expounding on, but not here. Buy me a beer in a bar sometime though…

25 in 12: Superman/Batman: Supergirl

Hi, Chicagoist readers. You’ll find the main page of the blog here and more comics content here.

Well, it didn’t take me very long to start totally cheating within the bounds of this project.

At the beginning of the year when I decided to set a goal of reading 25 books over the next 12 months, I remember thinking “I’m probably going to end up including a graphic novel or two.” Not that graphic novels aren’t, or can’t, be literature. They are, and can. But making time for reading comics in any form isn’t a problem for me. It’s sitting down with a novel or non-fiction tome and carving out the time to finish it that presents a challenge. Still, I knew if I was going to hit this goal without cutting down on my other media consumption, a few comics would sneak in here. And as I’ve still been trying to slog through two books that I’m not at that wild about, this one certainly did.

Even worse, Supergirl doesn’t even qualify as a proper graphic novel. It’s merely a collection of the Superman/Batman team-up comics (numbered #8-13) – a novella one might say – which deal with the Supergirl’s re-appearance in the DC Universe.

(This is probably confusing for the non-comic-geeks among you but know this: every so often comic book characters – including and especially the most iconic of them from Superman to Spider-Man to Wonder Woman – have their backstories revised. It keeps the characters fresh, helps bring in new readers and also gives writers new stories to tell. It also brings out the nerd fury like little else in comics. In any case, this is story is a re-introduction of Supergirl into the DCU. If you want to know how it got this way, there’s always Wikipedia.)

Like any volume of Superman/Batman, even a story about Supergirl is always a story about Superman and Batman. And, by extension, a story of identity.

In this story, Kara Zor-El (Supergirl) is a teenager sent to planet Earth soon after her baby cousin Kal-El (Superman) is rocketed away from their dying home planet of Krypton. Her father intends for her to be Kal-El’s protector, but due to some interstellar traffic jam, she ends up arriving on Earth several years after he does. While Supergirl’s arrival feels like home to Superman, Batman is suspicious of her, and remains so throughout the story, never quite sure of who she is.

Wonder Woman harbors similar concerns, and she brings Kara to Paradise Island for training and observation, over the objections of Superman who finds himself in conflict with two of his closest friends, due to his certitude over who Kara is meant to be. But her training is interrupted by a visit from the malevolent Darkseid – ruler of the hell planet of Apokolips and generally bad dude – who brainwashes Kara into becoming his handmaiden, leading Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to rescue her not once, but twice as Darkseid follows them back to Earth to make an attempt on Kara’s life.

If this volume of the Superman/Batman stories were a TV movie, it would be considered a backdoor pilot, as Supergirl was mainly a way to re-launch the character into her own title within the DCU. As such, there’s a feeling that all the “good stuff” about the Supergirl character was saved for later.

At times, it’s hard to tell if writer Jeph Loeb wants this new Supergirl to be a teenager just coming to terms with her adolescence or a fully-grown woman who realizes the person she was sent to protect is now protecting her. It leads to an odd juxtaposition of moments: Supergirl will be standing up to an accusatory Batman one moment – no mean feat – while in the next she’ll be gaily shopping for clothes, dressed in a baby-tee and low-rise jeans, the straps of her thong hiked up somewhere around her rib cage (granted, this book came out in 2004 but it just goes to show that boys on both sides of the inks and pencils have a hard time coming to terms with young women). But Loeb is smart enough to show us that when Supergirl is at her sharpest and best-defined is in moments of conflict whether with Batman, with an expert swordswoman on Paradise Island or even with Superman himself.

As I said, this is a Superman/Batman story. The through-line in these volumes is that each man finds a little of himself in the other, and vice versa. In this volume, Superman discovers that he shares Batman’s tendency to do “whatever is necessary.” Here, his desire to keep his family – Supergirl – safe, leads him to eventually bury, though not kill, Darkseid at the far end of the universe. It’s a frequent theme in comics: through adversity you find out who you really are. And family is at the core of who Superman is, whether on Krypton or in Kansas. At the end of Supergirl, Superman realizes that though Kara is Kryptonian and capable of super-heroism, it is up to her to discover her own place on Earth, as he did, away from the safe embrace of family.

I have to believe this has a resonance for other people the way it does for me: The moments in my life when I felt the most secure in my identity were the times immediately following periods of great conflict or insecurity.

In any case, the next time I sub a graphic novel in for a “real” book, I promise it’ll be something a little meatier. Like DC: The New Frontier.

Like wrestling a pig

Yesterday morning, I waded into the slap fight between Pitchfork and Urb magazine with this post on the TOC blog. In dissing Pitchfork, Urb placed them within the Chicago indie rock scene, which it finds to be “the most pretentious smarter-than-thou scene in the entire country.”

Nevermind that ALL indie rock scenes are at least a little pretentious, but I don’t think you can really call much of anything in Chicago pretentious (although in a response, LA Weekly drops a reference to Tortoise and if all most of the rest of the world knows about Chicago is either its post-rock and free jazz scenes, then I guess I can understand where they’re getting that from). Moreover, I don’t think Pitchfork is a vibrant part of the city’s scene. It’s not a knock against them, they’re just more nationally-focused.

In any case, the post got picked up by LAist and The Daily Swarm as well as a couple other places. I’m getting called out for not knowing my ass from page 8 in the dictionary because Film School are originally (?) from San Francisco and not L.A. OK, my bad even though they’re billing themselves as an L.A. band. And yeah, they’ve been around a couple years, but that’s exactly my point: I don’t see them as anything more than a band of noodling wankers who keep trying to convince people to buy what they’re selling.

Skeet On Mischa also points out that No Age is obviously L.A.’s most talked-about indie musical export right now. And he’s got a point. It slipped my mind that the noise-rock duo hails from there.

So to sum up, in the 1st Annual Talking Out Of Your Ass Tourney, TOC, Pitchfork and Urb finish in a three-way tie.

What's going on

Ugh, the guilt of a neglected blog.

I’m in another one of those phases where I’ve got a handful of half-finished posts sitting in draft, and can’t work up the nerve to attack those pesky, unworkable words and fashion them into fully-grown expressions. Also, 25 in 12 has hit a snag because of a book that I flat-out hate, but am determined to finish.

So, as usual, when all else fails, I talk about work.

TOC is running a month-long feature called Date Our Friends. It’s easily our most ambitious online project ever, and is my brainchild so I’m hoping it comes off. Two weeks ago, we asked readers to write in if they wanted to date one of our four friends. This week, we reveal who the daters will be, one each day. Next week, we’ll be posting video excerpts from their dates, and asking readers to vote on whether they think they’ll make it to a second.

The funny thing about all this is that yours truly will be accompanying these folks on their dates (dates don’t videotape themselves, you know!), which I am sure won’t be awkward at all. Ahem. This whole project is either going to be a smashing success or massive disaster. Either way, it ought to be fun to watch. So check out the feature each day at timeoutchicago.com/dateourfriends for the next couple weeks to see our updates.

Also, TOC now has a Twitter stream. It’s still in a soft launch right now, but feel free to follow us as we post updates on interesting articles, as well as goings-on within the TOC offices. We’ll be giving it a big push just prior to SXSW, as I’ll be posting daily updates to the TOCblog, and tweets to the Twitter stream.