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Indiana Music Archive: Gentleman Caller

(Listen while you read)

Gentleman Caller has been the flagship band of the last decade or for Bloomington's Kenny Childers, who formerly wrote and played in The Prom, Mysteries of Life, Stranded at the Drive-In, and more. You’ve probably heard Kenny’s name tossed around a lot recently due to an outstanding tribute album recorded in honor of his 40th birthday, Nine Different Kinds of Gone (available here at bandcamp). The album features many great artists and bands covering their favorite Childers-penned songs. And here at MFT, we just unleashed our Kickstarter campaign to release the tribute on vinyl, which we also hope will draw a few more people to Kenny’s classic older recordings. This blog post started out as a several-paragraphs-long tirade about how underrated Kenny Childers (and Indiana music in general) is and how lame it is that hundreds of lesser bands have received so much more recognition. But in revision, I decided to spare you all that. Let it suffice to say that the more I listen to Gentleman Caller, the more I feel that it’s a cosmic-scale injustice that they haven’t received their due as one of the best indie rock bands ever. Ever.

Just go pick any of their albums at random and press play. It’s all there: the eternal appeal of evocative melodies, emotional highs and lows, strummy guitars, lazily-spun jewels of genius tossed off like it’s no big deal, perfect imagery, great storytelling, actual chord changes, what pop music should be in our watered-down age. But guys like me don’t decide what pop music should be, and I’m okay with that. Even so, Gentleman Caller combines what we all love about great rock music: the Velvet Underground’s loose-but-propulsive playing style and “dark fantasy” lyrical bent, the mountain-sized melodies and rough edges of Big Star or The Replacements, the “who gives a shit, pass me another beer” nonchalance of slacker generation indie rockers like Pavement or Guided By Voices.

(Kenny Childers)

To put it another way: Gentleman Caller should be more known than they are. But let’s leave that wishful claim aside for the moment, and delve into a bit of the band’s history. Gentleman Caller formed as a side project for Childers around 2000, when he had grown somewhat weary of the over-inflated membership and crowded stage presence of his primary project, The Prom. Since his first listen to Brando’s The Headless Horseman Is A Preacher, Childers had wanted to work with Derek Richey, a longtime acquaintance and the frontman of Brando. So the two began to hang out and collaborate on recordings that would become Ice Water, Gentleman Caller’s debut album. Childers tells me that he wanted to try making some music that was as timeless as that of Brando or Marmoset (another large influence on his songwriting), and I consider Ice Water to be an absolute success in that respect. Songs like “Wash Away” and “Ice Water” sound like they’ve been in your life forever, and I’d be hard pressed to think of a weak track on the entire album.

As an album, Ice Water reflects Childers’ feelings of wanting to create an unpolished, organic project that helped him let go and experience what he calls “the freedom of giving up” in a home-recording environment. Although primarily consisting of Childers and Richey, the first Gentleman Caller album included contributions of other various friends and musicians, who helped lend the project a status as more of a “guild” than an outright “band.” But as time went by and more people joined the band, things solidified and grew more serious. This change is observable on the band’s second album, Until We Are Missing, which Childers still describes as his favorite Gentleman Caller album for the way it included more full-fledged arrangements from other band members. Frequent collaborator Chris Kupersmith grew into more of a lead-guitarist role, which Childers lauds as a special presence on Until We Are Missing that makes it a more mature and lasting effort.

Certain songs from Until We Are Missing, like “Mascara Lines” and “Broadripple Nightclubs” are a good representation of how GC work in a modern context to craft melodies and arrangements that never get stale. Their 2008 release, Gentleman Caller Vs. The Elephant, is another strong offering that contains some of the band’s best songs, such as opener “The Locusts” and “When I Am Travelling.” I guess I could easily proclaim my love for each and every song the band has recorded, but that might be a waste of words. If you’ve enjoyed any indie rock band in the last decade, be it The Shins or Spoon, I can guarantee that you’ll find something to love in Gentleman Caller’s music, and it may be something that outlasts your love for the fleeting styles of more popular (and more mediocre) acts. Want more suggestions? Try a few of Kenny’s favorites: the title track from Until We Are Missing, “Theater Empties” from Ice Water, or “The Answer,” a newer GC song recorded by Heidi Gluck for the Nine Different Kinds of Gone project.

Childers says that the era in his life during which the band recorded Gentleman Caller Vs. The Elephant was a very dark time of multiple personal tragedies and losses. He had a few difficult months back then, but as time passed, he unleashed an almost-obsessive flood of new songs, which are now being prepared for a new Gentleman Caller album to be released later this year. The last two years seem to have been rather productive for him, and listening to them now, I can tell you that these new songs are definitely among the best he’s ever written. Some of them are on the tribute album, but I imagine we’ll be hearing more from the band at MFT in upcoming months as this as-yet-untitled album is prepared for release. So go ahead and get on the bandwagon, in case 2012 becomes the year in which Kenny and GC start to get more of the attention they always deserved. Dig through the archives, enjoy what you hear, don’t forget to check out the Kickstarter campaign, and count yourself among the very fortunate few of us who consider ourselves lifetime Childers fans.

(Gentleman Caller circa 2008)

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