The 1900s (from left): Andra Kulans, Jeanine O’Toole, Charlie Ransford, Matt Roan, Caroline Donovan, Edward Anderson
After their very first show, in 2005, the 1900s signed with a record label and were well on their way to becoming one of the most buzzed-about bands in town. But by the time the Chicago septet released their first full-length record, Cold & Kind, in October 2007, the group was falling apart.
Long-standing tensions reached a dramatic peak that fall when three members started to brawl as their van crossed the Williamsburg Bridge in New York City. After the fight, which eventually spilled out onto the sidewalk, they stuck together for a while, but Mike Jasinski, a multi-instru-mentalist, and Tim Minnick, the drummer, ultimately departed in August 2008, shortly before a scheduled tour.
Their exit could have sidelined the band, but the remaining members recruited a replacement combo and completed the jaunt. “It was probably the first time we’d been out on the road without a conflict,” Jeanine O’Toole, one of the singers, says.
“That tour gave us the idea that being in this band could be a fun thing again,” adds Edward Anderson, guitarist and keyboard player, over drinks at Rainbo Club in Wicker Park.
Still, rebounding from the shakeup took two years and three drummers—two of whom pinch-hit on the band’s new album, Return of the Century, which comes out on Parasol Records on November 2nd. The process of reconfiguring the group gave the remaining members a newfound unity. “It brought everyone who stayed in the band much closer together,” Anderson says.
This cohesion is evident throughout Return of the Century. The singers O’Toole and Caroline Donovan swathe each other in blissful harmonies. In the past, their vocals took on an ostentatious grandeur that made the 1900s sound like the younger, attention-seeking siblings of the New Pornographers. On Return of the Century, they meld their voices more deliberately, gracing the songs rather than overwhelming them.
The band again mixes folk, sixties-flavored pop, and psychedelia, but the five-minute, digression-filled songs are gone. “We decided that things were going to be short and sweet,” O’Toole says. Similarly, the 1900s scale back the lavish orchestrations that marked their previous records. Guitars ripple and chime, dreamy keyboards murmur, Andra Kulans’s string playing is all the lovelier for its spare use, and Charlie Ransford’s gently insistent bass provides the foundation for all the activity. “We put a lot of love and care in it, but it’s not as precious as what we’ve done before,” O’Toole explains.
The band members acknowledge that their new approach is a departure from what fans have come to expect and that, after the hiatus, they may need to win back the audience that once came to them easily. “We disappeared for two years. Now we’re working harder than we ever did to prove ourselves again,” Anderson says. “We all came through a lot together, and now the only drama is us versus the world.”
Photograph: Jenny Tabor