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Bobby Conn pops pop's bubble

By Dave Chamberlain

AUGUST 24, 1998:  Baby, how meaning of "pop music" changes. Once reserved to describe singles with radio staying power and records with great selling power defined pop music, now "pop" represents the qualitative, as opposed to the quantitative.

Bobby Conn's second record (due to be released September 18), "Rise Up!" (Truckstop/Atavistic) has, by virtue of the blinders worn by much of the mainstream media, little hope of prompting Spin to profile the man. But it's the best pop album made by a Chicago performer so far this year. With a scattershot approach stylistically, Conn switches direction too often to let the music slip into the background. The first four songs run the gamut from light industrial dub to orchestrated disco epic to psychedelic soul-blues to high-octane rocker. Listening to the record constantly around friends, I got asked more than once, "Is this still the same record?" Conn, a native New Yorker, has been an on-and-off resident of Chicago throughout the nineties. Prior to embarking on a solo career, Conn was part of Condeucent, a four-person band that had weekly shows at the Gallery Cabaret. Condeucent played what Conn calls "atonal psychedelic freakouts for a crowd of aging hippie folksingers." Temporarily, the singer forsook Chicago for New Orleans, which was "where I discovered my solo act," he says.

Conn's voice sells "Rise Up" as much as the pure musical quality. Part swaggering Bowie with elements of an in-key, melodic John Lydon, Conn sings with a wink and a nudge. It's hard to peg whether he's serious when he sings, but every word, every line, from a monumentally grand "I'm doing fine!" to the sneering "Young sprout, coming out/Gotta hide the pimples," sounds utterly genuine.

Produced by Jim O'Rourke, "Rise Up" seems at times so perfectly crafted around the hooks and corners, with orchestration and integrated shifts in style, it's almost as if the record was a mathematical equation. "I spent a long time before the sessions," Conn says, "working everything out with Julie Pomerleau, who arranged the strings and most of the orchestral bits. I tried to be as prepared as possible, and most of what you hear on the album was predetermined." Conn adds that "Jim O'Rourke was amazingly fast at adding many little moments of magic," and he continuously lauds the rest of the musicians who worked on the record, including Weasel Walters (Flying Luttenbachers, Lake of Dracula) and Monica BouBou (Zeek Sheck).

Despite the musical lightness that pervades much of the record, Conn's lyrics hardly follow suit. On the title track, Conn follows up a passage of falsetto-vocals in Philly-style disco with "Jesus! He came back/Jesus! High on crack/Jesus! Threw Him in jail/Jesus! Can't afford the bail." Or the constant refrain from "United Nations," "United Nations under the rule of Satan." There's a undercurrent of religious questioning and governmental scrutiny throughout the record, though with the prevalence of those themes in modern music, that's hardly what makes it stand out.

The attraction of "Rise Up!" lies in the complete product: a sculpted, musically superior, beautiful record. Tunes and melodies that get stuck in your head the first time you hear them. "Songs come out of thin air," Conn explains. "Usually when I'm walking, a little melody will pop up and I'll start to hum it. If it's any good, it'll stick in my head long enough to write lyrics. Then I'll figure out some kind of structure. The best part is playing it for other musicians and seeing what they do with it. I like seeing how well a song holds up to a variety of interpretations."

Conn will play a show highlighting material from "Rise Up" at the Hothouse, August 25, and he expects to tour the east coast and Europe before the year ends. And though you can bet "Rise Up!" won't sell enough records to be true pop music in record industry terms, Conn has succeeded in making a great record that, if the general music-buying populace would just once go out of their way to find quality, would be in the reprint phase by December. The fact that great music, even great pop music, gets ignored, no doubt, surprises nobody.

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