Few contemporary Chicago indie rock bands exemplify the hard-to-define nature of their hometown’s overlapping scenes — and what makes contributing to creative communities with such porous borders exciting — like Health&Beauty. The band started in 2003 as a vehicle for singer-guitarist Brian J. Sulpizio, a producer and engineer who has recorded freakish noise rockers Lechuguillas, eerie post-punks Toupee, and adventurous indie poppers Mines. (In 2013 Sulpizio took Mines frontman Bill Satek to court … on TV: The pair appeared on Judge Mathis after Satek failed to pay the full cost of recording his band’s fantastic 2013 debut, Just Another Thing That Got Ruined.)
Sulpizio doesn’t just sit behind the boards on other people’s projects either, and he’s a go-to sideman for untamed folkie Ryley Walker, who frequently rolls out to Chicago shows backed by a full band. Sulpizio is usually along for the ride, as are drummer Frank Rosaly, a linchpin in Chicago’s jazz and improvisation scenes, and keyboardist Ben Boye, who has frequently performed with wandering folk artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy and former Chicagoan Angel Olsen. Rosaly, Boye, and Sulpizio chop it up beyond working with Walker; Rosaly and Boye joined the Health&Beauty fold in 2012, and the group has remained a tight three-piece ever since.
Sulpizio has been the main force guiding Health&Beauty, but Boye and Rosaly more than fill things out. On the band’s debut album for London indie Wichita Recordings, No Scare, the members deftly support one another while building buoyant, playful experimental cuts. Health&Beauty map out complex songs with tight corners while making sure to let air seep into the melodies, allowing the songs to swing and float. The results are colorful and lend each tune with a sense that the group could take an unexpected turn at any moment — a sensation that persists even upon repeated listens. No wonder Walker gels so well with these guys; the trio not only know how to lay a foundation, but they can also mess around with its appearance without destroying its integrity.
Health&Beauty play around with tension and release throughout the shape-shifting No Scare. The tension is most notable: It’s in the clobbering discordant spikes of “Beyond Beyoncé”, the pointed guitar notes that land with a violent sting on the title track, and the interlocking instrumental pattern on “Wartime”. The release of that tension helps No Scare give the album a looseness that allows the material’s rough edges to settle in and reveal the affecting textures. The tight give-and-take holds court over most of the album. The rise-and-fall propels opener “Back to the Place” as soon as Sulpizio ditches the light strumming that opens the song for a rambunctious melody.
The exception here is the winding, country-tinged “I’m Yr Baby (for Aaron Swartz)”, which is named after the deceased Internet activist who grew up in the Chicagoland area. The lengthy number previously appeared on Health&Beauty’s 2013 cassette, Guns. The drowsy song moves at a slow pace that evokes a relative calm, though that belies the dead-end worthlessness built into Sulpizio’s lyrics. In a 2014 Chicago Tribune interview, Sulpizio explained that the song was inspired by Swartz’s “rightness” and the reality he faced fighting for his causes: “That is a fairy tale, like a rom-com. Not necessarily the ‘rightness,’ but at least the ideas about what the ‘rightness’ can do.” Sulpizio also said he generally doesn’t like to discuss the meaning of his songs, in part because he often enjoys the way others’ music resonates with him even when — or sometimes because — he misinterprets some details. Even with the sense of death hanging over “Im Yr Baby”, Sulpizio and company nudge the song along with an affecting grace that opens the song up to interpretation. Similarly, Health&Beauty supply No Scare with enough oxygen to make the album reflect your dreams for this world, excelling at the meeting point between its recorded execution and personal interpretation.
Essential Tracks: “Wartime”, “I’m Yr Baby (for Aaron Swartz)”, and “Riverside Cemetery”