Out of the Dark

Stately, plump Shannon Schlappi wears a Yankees ball cap because he likes winners. When he smiles, a gold tooth gleams in the back of his mouth. Last September, Schlappi’s label, Drama Club Records, based in Independence, Missouri, put out a masterful record of hopeful, melancholy pop that takes a seat at the retro cocktail lounge alongside ELO-style disco rock, early ’80s British new wave and the power-pop sound of the Police. It’s the debut album from a Chicago band called the Changes, and it’s called Today Is Tonight.

Having left the local music distributor Harvest Media amid its collapse, Schappi and his partner, Matt Morgus (who had owned Birthday Party Records, home of Lawrence band Kelpie), were looking for a band to launch their own label.

“I just knew when I heard the song åWhen I Wake’ that this was a band that would go places,” Schlappi says.

He went to Chicago on the last day of 2005 to see the Changes play a New Year’s Eve party. He was blown away. “It was the first show I’ve been to in a long time where you’d be hard-pressed to find someone without a smile on their face,” he recalls.

That would sound kooky but for the fact that the album is chock full of catchy, swank, sexy pop. There’s not a dull cut on it. Not just one or two, but most of its songs have been getting play around the country.

At one point, “When I Wake,” was aired 25 times a week on Sirius radio’s Left of Center station, which also played the album’s longest, most dissonant track, “Her You and I.” Another song, the chipper “Modern Love,” has lightened up the glum CBS show Without a
Trace. NPR’s eclectic music program World Café has aired five songs from Today and invited the band to play in the studio. The Changes also did a live broadcast on Internet radio favorite KEXP.

But these are small victories. The Billboard charts remain a chasm away.

“We have a band that has a decent buzz going, but we’re having a hard time getting CDs into stores,” Schlappi says.

It’s hard enough to sell physical CDs in a climate of downloading individual songs. Distribution is a headache all its own.

Fortune is fickle. Today Is Tonight is more buoyant and less woozy than Wincing the Night Away, the new album from the Shins — which, despite months of online leaks before its release, gave indie label Sub Pop its first No. 2 Billboard debut.

So here’s what I’m going to do. I, grizzled, jaded Jason Harper, am going to tell you about a song by the Changes. It’s called “In the Dark.” It will change your life.

It opens with electronic drums, bass and piano, simmering like a low-key New Order tune. In his fragile tenor, singer Darren Spitzer croons a verse that, like the music behind it, is minimalist but evocatively precise:

Standing alone, waiting for him/In the rain, I’m coming in/That is when we meet/You are not an ordinary person, like nothing I’ve ever seen/In the rain, in my jacket, in the dark, when we meet.

“In the Dark” by the Changes, from Today Is Tonight:

There’s no more detail, but you can see it unfolding, this sudden emotional connection between two strangers living in the same building. The guy comes home at night, bundled up against the rain, and meets his future love while she’s waiting for her loser boyfriend to pick her up. What single person living in an apartment hasn’t fantasized about that?

The string of phrases — In the rain, in my jacket, in the dark — plays up the mundane surroundings of everyday life in order to contrast the strangeness of attraction. The extraordinary happens in the context of the ordinary, causing you to remember what the weather was like, what you were wearing — things you would otherwise forget.

As if to celebrate the moment, the song contains a fast, tasty and rare-in-indie-rock guitar solo that sounds like it was peeled off an early Steely Dan record.

The song is brilliantly constructed. It gets in, it gets out and, even though it doesn’t make you smile, it comforts you. It makes you want to fall in love. Don’t listen to it if you’re already in a relationship — you’ll long for the thrill of something new.

Instead, buy the album. You can get a copy when the Changes play this Saturday, March 10, at the Jackpot. But watch out. I’ll be there … in my jacket, in the dark. When we meet. Out of the Dark Music industry be damned! The Changes will change your life.

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