Featured Music: Wednesday, March 02, 2005
Sad songs say so much, especially when they’re couched in bright, buoyant melodies: the handiwork of The Chemistry Set.
Into The Light

The pretty power-pop of The Chemistry Set comes to life on a new full-length.


Thirty-five-year-old guitarist and songwriter Steve Duncan had countless live performances at local and national clubs notched on his belt, so he considered himself to be pretty comfortable onstage. He’d played guitar with Grand Street Cryers and Tabula Rasa, bands that had attracted sizable followings from the ’90s into the new millenium. But when time came to front his newest musical entity, The Chemistry Set, he felt a little as if he were starting from scratch. He realized two things: that a guitar is quite an easy instrument to hide behind and that when you decide to assume lead vocal duties — as he has, along with singer-keyboardist Meredith Knoll — you are looked at by audiences in a way they never look at other musicians.
“There were definitely a few shows early on where I was like, ‘Now, why did I think I wanted to be a singer?’” Duncan recalls of The Chemistry Set’s debut in 2003. “We picked venues where I knew I’d be comfortable — The Wreck Room in Fort Worth and Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas — but I still felt like people were looking at me sideways, thinking ‘So now the guitarist wants to be a lead singer ...’.”
Actually, he clarifies, “I was scared shitless.”
In the end, Duncan decided, what the hell? Whether the final result was good or bad, it was a new life experience. Besides, “I’d been writing songs that I wanted to present in a very specific way. The first year [as a singer] was a lot of little baby steps, of testing the parameters of my voice. But I feel good about it now.”
What Duncan is saying is that The Chemistry Set is almost in full sprint. The band — with Cory Helms on bass, keyboards, backing vocals, and a signature glockenspiel, and Joshua Hoover on drums — has just released The Chemistry Set, their full-length debut.
Although there’s a weird glow of innocent yearning radiated by The Chemistry Set, the word “experimental” hardly applies. The band members’ collective current enthusiasms — Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, The Shins, and Duncan and Helms’ ardor for the delicately crafted tunes of Joanna Newsom — speak mostly about a desire to develop, hone, and sustain a level of musicianship that’s at once accessible and rooted in exploratory guitar riffs and imagistic lyrics. The album plays like a sad child whose moods are constantly being rescued by a large and generous imagination; it’s a melodic carnival of melancholia that’s obsessed with the end of the world, the end of relationships, and the places where we choose to isolate ourselves. Musically, The Chemistry Set evinces Duncan’s bedrock taste for 1960s British pop with lots of pretty melodies (“I don’t think ‘pretty’ is a dismissive adjective at all,” he said), offset by the rolling, almost martial percussion from Hoover. “Into the Light,” using its title as an ultra-hooky refrain, is about redemptive surrender to God or creativity or self, take your pick; “The House of OK” is a hiding place full of marginalia (“A plastic guitar and an old music stand / A brown paper bag full of red rubber bands”) that flirts with the subject of the mundane as a form of suicide; and “She’s The Alpha” suggests love as the ultimate source of innovation, with Duncan’s guitar ringing gently throughout. The album’s leitmotif is Helms’ mad-merry glockenspiel chiming away no matter how apocalyptic Duncan’s lyrics get. During a typical live set, Helms starts plunking away at those keys that sound like handbells for three or four songs, and it’s the instrument people most often comment upon.
The four pieces of The Chemistry Set fell into place the typical way: The area rawk scene acted as a giant, amorphic DNA pool, squeezing out new bands composed of members of old bands like they were cellular organisms. In 2002, Duncan’s then-group was dissolving, and he began an intensive search to find musicians best-suited to be both collaborators and midwives for the material he was rapidly amassing by himself. The hunting grounds were what The Chemistry Set’s bio jokingly calls “Post Rock Show Social Enlightenment Sessions,” a.k.a the parties thrown by bands, their friends, and hangers-on after gigs. It’s not surprising that Duncan remembers when he asked Meredith Knoll to join, as they have since become a couple: During a party at his house, she walked over to the electric piano in the living room and started free-associating notes along with the c.d. that was playing. Knoll, who is a graphic artist, hadn’t played in a band since college, and that wasn’t a serious musical affair. She had zilch experience as a live singer, although Duncan liked her voice. He said, “Will you be in my band?” She said, “OK,” and after Duncan met Helms and Hoover through the glowing recommendation of friends, The Chemistry Set was assembled for fresh and daring harmonic experiments.
The Chemistry Set was recorded in a rented house in Dallas’ Lakewood neighborhood using just a personal computer, the Cu Base recording program, and some halfway decent mics. The album achieves the quality that Duncan and company wanted — “That sense of being inspired at 3 a.m. and singing and playing quietly so you don’t wake up your roommate.” Everyone contributed production ideas, and Duncan says the only points of contention were between him and Knoll. It came down to different musical philosophies. “I tend to want things big, to say, ‘We need an electric guitar here,’” he says. “Meredith wanted things kept down a little more. She’d say, ‘How about a mandolin instead?’”
Thanks to the musical connections Duncan had established with Grand Street Cryers and Tabula Rasa, The Chemistry Set is out of the gate galloping with strong press behind the c.d. and headlining dates at the key clubs in Fort Worth and Dallas. Those same connections also remind Duncan of the long list of fellow musicians who’ve “been through the major label wringer” of corporate contracts, artists who found out on the internet that they’d been dropped from their label or had their projects inexplicably shelved due to the revolving door of creative management minds. The band hopes to snag the interest of a solid independent label with a strong distribution department, then let touring and the internet take care of the promotion.
Go to www.thechemset.com for more information.

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