By Julie Lawrence Special to Published Dec 15, 2005 at 5:06 AM

If Chicago's Canasta had a band motto, it might very well be, "The more, the merrier." Aside from having six full-time members -- all of whom sing and contribute at least one different instrument to the mix -- the band's fantastic full-length debut, "We Were Set Up," welcomes additional contributions from vocalist Edith Frost and members of the Cocktails, Freakwater and Archer Prewitt's band, to name a few.

"Collaboration has always been a hallmark of Canasta, especially since none of our songs are the product of a single vision," says keyboardist John Cunningham. "Each one is developed collaboratively among all six of us."

And, amazingly, they harness the chaos of collective creative sources into something incredibly tight and consistently good throughout 13 tracks of pop goodness.

"I think it's good for us, since all of us come from different musical backgrounds. Often what results from our collaboration is a unique mix of influences, so when we invited other people to play on the album, part of it was a desire to extend this creative process in the studio."

Canasta -- which is indeed named after the card game, and, according to Cunningham, is intended to sound "classic and a little old-timey" -- also comprises Ben Imdieke (guitar), Elizabeth Lindau (violin), Megan O'Connor (piano) Matt Priest (vocals, bass) and Colin Sheaff (drums).

"We Were Set Up," though still just weeks old, has already earned the sextet complementary comparisons to Belle & Sebastian and The Decemberists, thanks to their sometimes light and airy shoegaze melodies juxtaposed with vocalist Matt Priest's epic, narrative lyrics. The result is pleasant music that is easily accessible but layered and interesting enough to be a fresh sound for indie pop.

"When we first started playing together almost four years ago, we didn't quite know what we were capable of, and so we probably played it safe more often than not," says Cunningham. "We used to joke about how we were the 'least rock and roll' band around. Now I think we're a lot more comfortable experimenting, and we're rougher around the edges than we used to be. But at the same time, we're still all about the pop."

It is perhaps their willingness to toy around with conventional sounds -- adding trombone when you least expect it, and opening the album with haunting keyboard notes followed quickly by soft violin -- that has landed them twice at the CMJ Music Marathon and also a gig at Austin's indie rock mecca, the SXSW Music Festival. Their last visit to the dairy state was a Madison date with fellow successfully self-released indie darlings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

Canasta's show at Onopa Brewing Co. on Sunday, Dec. 18 will be its first Milwaukee performance as well as the one-month anniversary of the release of "We Were Set Up." The band plays with Headlights (Polyvinyl) and Milwaukee's Those Royals. The show starts at 10 p.m.

Canasta's Web site is

Julie Lawrence Special to staff writer Julie Lawrence grew up in Wauwatosa and has lived her whole life in the Milwaukee area.

As any “word nerd” can attest, you never know when inspiration will strike, so from a very early age Julie has rarely been seen sans pen and little notebook. At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee it seemed only natural that she major in journalism. When offered her an avenue to combine her writing and the city she knows and loves in late 2004, she knew it was meant to be. Around the office, she answers to a plethora of nicknames, including “Lar,” (short for “Larry,” which is short for “Lawrence”) as well as the mysteriously-sourced “Bill Murray.”