Accepting Jimmy Whispers as My Personal Savior

Transforming from skeptic to disciple at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall

By Katie Ingegneri

Okay, so I’ll admit: at the beginning I was rather skeptical about the Jimmy Whispers experience. Wasn’t familiar with his old band (where he was James Cicero) since I’ve only lived in Chicago for two years, and at first glance, and first listen, I didn’t get, or really want to get, what he was all about. My first impression of his lo-fi album and persona was ultra-ironic detachment masquerading as sincerity, quirkiness for the sake of quirk, even down to the handmade DIY sweatshirts with hand-drawn sharks. Even though I know he recorded his whole album, “Summer in Pain,” on his iPhone, at first it felt like everything was just so purposefully “indie.” To put it plainly, at first I thought the whole production was art school bullshit. (Call me cynical, but when you’re a straight girl who’s gone through the wringer of academia and a creative writing MFA program, you quickly become familiar with the kind of pretentious hipster men who use every half-baked confession in their arsenal to get girls.)

But this is a tale of redemption and conversion. And on Wednesday night, November 4, 2015, I accepted Jimmy Whispers as my personal savior at Lincoln Hall, the site of many of my music experiences that are as close to religious ecstasy as I’ll ever get. To be fair, prior to the show, I had slowly been letting the album get under my skin. What I originally perceived as hard-to-listen-to moodiness actually started to register as the earnest, catchy little DIY pop ballads they were. With easily singalong-able choruses like “Lord, I need a vacation” in “Vacation,” and in “I Get Lost in You in the Summertime,” after the intro where he’s exclaiming to himself, “okay, gotta change the fucking feeling, how hard is this shit,” the percussion kicks in with a trippy accordion, with resulting vibes that are like a romantic comedy on serious drugs. He’s like Daniel Johnston meets Mac Demarco (a friend of his, I think), something not all that easily categorizable. The more I listen, the more I find myself with the catchy snippets running through my head. “Baby when I come back, when I come back, I need you, tell me all the things I need to know.”

And I started to come around too after discovering Whitney, and realizing that they were Jimmy’s backing band for some songs at Pitchfork this summer (and the song in the video below, “Heart Don’t Know,” sounded damn good with their arrangement). I did admire the fact that Jimmy performed that song in a red dress before diving into the crowd, cause that gave him more artistic cred in my view. But still, I was not a convert. Not just yet.

I did like his very Chicago-y video for “I Get Lost in You in the Summertime,” with cameos from The Empty Bottle and Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek of Whitney. I guess I didn’t necessarily realize that what you see with Jimmy, bounding around the city, dragging his microphone and cord around all the way into Lake Michigan, was actually what you get. But more on that later.

After his show at Lincoln Hall, that was both solo (in the style of his album) and backed by Whitney, I am an official convert to the church of this eccentric pop shaman. I don’t think I was actually expecting to have nearly as much fun as I did. Not that his songs are somber, by any means — and not that I just expected him to stand up there, unmoving, with a drum machine, because I didn’t, and knew that wouldn’t be the case anyway—but I wasn’t really prepared for the full experience. I stood right up front, ready for anything, ready to accept the sound and vision, and it far surpassed my expectations.

Jimmy is an un-self-conscious karaoke poet, a postmodern lounge singer, bounding around energetically on stage with his microphone and cord, encouraging the crowd to sing along, and while the performance does feel studied and purposeful, what I initially took as ivory tower detachment melted away into pure excitement. A crowd of drunk dudes enthusiastically sang along and danced, and Jimmy would grab the head and hair of some of the guys standing at the front of the stage from time to time, like a prophet blessing his disciples.

Jimmy alternatingly tore his signature handmade “Summer in Pain” t-shirt open and put on a suit, climbed onto the side stage speakers and dove into the not-super-packed crowd. He referenced Frank Sinatra, dedicating some songs to his recently deceased father, where I’d just be crying on stage if I were him. Something that, if he did, wouldn’t feel wholly out of character with the whole vibe. I liked his unpredictable exuberance, like trying to be happy when you’re sad. Maybe the case. Maybe the entire vibe of the album.

Jimmy backed by the Whitney boys

It was the songs where he was backed by Whitney that felt truly magical to me. Not surprising, as I am a huge Whitney fan, but since I had already seen them perform their own songs earlier in the week, it was truly dazzling to hear them take on Jimmy’s songs, and if I’m remembering correctly, it was actually some new, unreleased Jimmy songs that I loved the most. With Whitney, the songs are more grandiose, more unabashedly romantic, taking the Jimmy Whispers bedroom pop out of the bedroom into the world at large and elevating it to something overwhelmingly magnificent. I asked Max after the show if they were going to record any of it with Jimmy, and right now it seems I can only cross my fingers that they do. I’m not trying to downgrade Jimmy’s solo style by any means, because he wrote these songs after all, but with the full band it’s hard to deny how powerful they are.

(And honestly, as a now-rabid Smith Westerns fan that came around after their breakup, the gorgeous, glossy, multi-layered rock sound of these talented musicians with Jimmy reminded me of the second and third Smith Westerns studio albums, so that’s part of what really stood out to me. Yes, it’s a bunch of the same people — Max, Julien and Ziyad Asrar — but it was like a dream to experience that in person, since Jimmy’s songs are a little more rock-pop and Whitney’s original songs have a slightly mellower and different stylistic vibe, so Jimmy and Whitney together evoked Smith Westerns. I’m a huge unapologetic fangirl for all of them.)

The illustrious Luke Tokyo Drifter (real name: Kenny Alden) of many local rock n roll bands (and a usual member of James Swanberg’s Todays Hits, who had performed earlier in the evening supported by Twin Peaks) was also on hand to contribute some clarinet action to the proceedings, in a song that I wish I could remember better because it was fucking awesome. All the new songs and full band songs were, and I wish I could listen to them again. Like any religious experience, the magic is fleeting, but the feeling remains, and all you can do is pray…that they release some more songs.

Julien & Will of Whitney, and the specter of Luke Tokyo Drifter with clarinet

The question about most performers at the end of the day is sincerity, do they mean what they say, or is it just an “act.” And perhaps part of my initial mistrust of the Jimmy Whispers experience was that I didn’t see any of the humor in it. It’s not exactly lighthearted —but it is hopeful, and it’s funnier than you expect. Maybe it’s an “act,” but where I previously saw pretense and artifice, I now understand the genuine feelings behind it, the singing to mask the pain, the dancing until your feet hurt. “Summer in pain won’t go away.” What you see with Jimmy is what you get. But what do you see? And what do you get?

Jimmy is a performer, there is no doubt there. Performing seems to be as crucial to his routine as the music. While I’m used to following Midwestern rock n roll dude bands, and I love them, they rarely challenge me with their style and ethos. Jimmy is still an enigma, and I appreciate that. I’m officially on board, and ready to return to the Church of Jimmy Whispers whenever he opens the doors next.

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