The Flat Five
The Flat Five are some of Chicago’s most in-demand utility musicians. They’re the folks that get called in to add that last bit of something to make a song great. They are on records with other people from the Mekons to Mavis Staple and Brian Wilson. They are all super fans of all kinds of harmony singing. Flat Five songs sound familiar because they are scholars of pop song craft. They can do anything street corner Do-Wop or Beach Boys perfect waves of sound.
The Flat Five are Kelly Hogan of Atlanta’s legendary Jody Grind. Kelly often teams up with Nora O’Connor as the vocal support for Neko Case and the Decemberists. Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough are in the current edition of NRBQ (and Casey shared leads with Brian Wilson on the 2017 Pet Sounds tour). Alex Hall plays drums in more Chicago jazz combos than I could ever list. All the songs on Another World were written Scott’s brother, Chris Ligon, who normally writes music for film and television.
First impressions are deceiving. The Flat Five are master of their craft and like to wrap themselves in familiar sonic consume. At first blush, the songs can sound a little too sweet, a little too sentimental and a little too bound to the Tin Pan Alley school of pop craft. “Look At The Birdy” his me like a giant puff pastry of a song. I actually found it annoying. I kind of relate to it now. The song is the lament of a photographer trying to shoot baby portraits at a department store studio.
It pays to give the tunes repeated listening. Let the harmonies seduce you, then be rewarded with their deadpan humor and jabs at your social consciousness. Take the opening track, “Drip A Drop.” It’s a fun little tune about feeling good and watching your boyfriend dance. American Bandstand gives it an 8, it’s got a good beat and you dance to it. Tucked in with the hully gully is are the lines, “America, we’re giving you a warning. We’re making love not no stinking civil war.” Take that Internet trolls.
The biggest emotional gotcha on Another World comes on a bittersweet campfire song. It’s a simple melody with the singer saying, “Had my last cup of coffee, my last piece of pie” with the repeated line “but it kills me to know I won’t see you again.” The first time I heard it, I was thinking it was a sentimental break up song like “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” When we reach the end of the song, it’s a gut punch. “Say goodbye to my children, goodbye to my mom. Say goodbye to my daddy if he comes around. Say goodbye to my buddies and to my dear wife. Because the great state of Texas is taking my life.”
Enjoy the Flat Five for what they are, five friends getting together to have fun singing and playing together. If you just want to dig the great singing, that’s fine. If you catch the more pointed comments, all the better.