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Illinois

What the Hell Do I Know? EP

Ace Fu Records

Though Illinois frontman Chris Archibald is primarily a banjoist, his small-town Pennsylvanian quartet shares little musically with the typical genres associated with said instrument. They’ve got less in common with Sufjan Stevens and much more to do with amply rocking contemporaries Menomena. This is surely a positive likening, since Illinois is touring with Menomena through mid November.

The new EP is called What the Hell Do I Know?, but when it comes to making music, I’d say Illinois know quite a bit. Opening track “Alone Again” features sliding guitars, clean drums, and simple piano melodies over a ton of layered vocals. The song’s endless “ba-ba-ba” immediately calls to mind Yo La Tengo’s “You Can Have It All.” Lyrically, it also imparts a sad message: the track’s heroine swears she “won’t be left at home alone again,” while the narrator confides, “I might not be able to fix things but I’ll try.”

Though “Alone Again” is one of my favorites on the EP, it’s the only one of the album’s several downers I can really get behind. The sappy but cute “What Can I Do for You?” sounds weirdly reminiscent of early Ben Kweller, and we all know how well that dude lived up to his massive pre-LP hype … right. The severe vocal compression and sad indie kid lyrics on mopetastic number “Headphones” (read: “from the moment I could walk / you made me wanna run / I feel so lonely when I talk / I just put the headphones on”) could’ve come straight out of the 1997 Conor Oberst songbook.

But all cry and no play makes Illinois a dull band, and lucky for us, dull they ain’t. Funny, funky, and thumping “Bad Day” is almost incomprehensible, but underneath the vocal obscurity, you can hear the clever comedy to Archibald’s lyrics. And the fantastic “One on One” could totally have been mislabeled as a Pinkerton-era Weezer B-side on a P2P network, just like Illinois’ pop rock forefathers Phantom Planet, The Rentals, and Self. Its offbeat rhythms, lazy harmonies, and memorable chorus of “I’m better at one-on-one” make it a fantastically tasty standout in the midst of an inconsistent but exciting first release.

Illinois will play Paradise Rock Club with Menomena on Friday, Nov. 9. To hear these selections (and the crunchy and funky non-album track “Irish Whiskey”) check out http://www.myspace.com/illinois/.