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The Whee Design 

Call and Response updates the West Coast sound for the new millennium

Wednesday, Jan 17 2001
Call and Response is practicing at drummer Jordan Dalrymple's Berkeley apartment.

"This is a song you make out to," singer Carrie Clough says by way of introduction.

"In a Chevy van with a heart-shaped bubble window," organist/singer Simone Rubi finishes with a laugh.

The band launches into "California Floating in Space," a number from its new, self-titled debut album. Actually, "launches" is the wrong word; more precisely, the group eases into the song, with guitarist Dan Judd strumming an AM radio riff, Rubi caressing the ivories, Dalrymple and bassist Terri Loewenthal laying an insistent beat, and Clough singing in a tone so elegant and worldly that it's hard to believe it comes from her small, 24-year-old frame. Suddenly, Rubi rips into a spacey synth bit and Dalrymple busts into a funky breakbeat, and the song ends with gorgeous, intertwining harmony vocals.

It's a typical Call and Response song: tightly played, super catchy, and sonically unclassifiable. Somehow, the band manages to borrow liberally from the past without sounding dated or crass, crafting some of the most persuasive pop to come along in ages. What's especially amazing is that this version of the band came together only six months ago, and that the whole project started out as a simple way for two twentysomething kids to escape the eviscerating boredom of Santa Barbara.

From an early age, Dan Judd had different tastes than his friends. "I was into jazz and funk and no one else was," Judd says. "So I played in punk and ska bands just to play. In Santa Barbara, you don't have options."

Meanwhile, Carrie Clough and Simone Rubi were preparing for the future by engaging in that oft-dreaded after-school activity: piano lessons. After high school, Clough went off to Colby College in Maine, and Rubi asked Judd if he wanted to start a different kind of band, one inspired by the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and other Italian film music composers. He agreed, and the duo began jamming with similarly interested musicians, such as Joe Rogers (now in local country-rock band Court & Spark). They got the band name -- a term for the pre-blues, field holler singing style employed by Southern slaves -- from Rubi's music theory class. Soon, the band felt a need for vocals, so after her 1998 graduation Clough joined up.

It seemed like the perfect solution, except that Clough had no idea how to sing pop songs. "I studied voice for six years. Then I went to college and sung opera and with choral groups," Clough says. "When I tried to sing with [Call and Response], I didn't know what to do. Sure, I'd listened to pop music, but I didn't know how to sing it."

"Dan and I gave her a lot of direction on the way we wanted the vocals when she started," Rubi says. Rubi and Judd wanted to employ multiple-part vocal harmonies like '60s orchestral pop group the Zombies and '70s easy listening combo the Free Design, while crafting music that blended West Coast staples such as the Mamas and the Papas with modern electronic bands like Air and Stereolab.

Eventually, Call and Response began to have gigs in Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. The band's blend of organ-infused soul and dance-floor pop didn't go over well at first. One show was so poorly attended that the musicians plopped a couch down in front of the stage for their parents to sit on. "The clubs [in Santa Barbara] didn't get us, and L.A. didn't get us either," Judd says.

"I think people in L.A. thought they got us but it was this cultish, Beachwood Sparks kind of thing," Rubi says, referring to the retro-country, Flying Burritos/Byrds knockoff band. When she was in San Francisco, she remembers, "People would say, "Come up, and we'll get you started and get shows.' It was a lot friendlier."

The trio moved to San Francisco in the summer of 1999 and was joined by bassist Terri Loewenthal late in the year. Although she had played in the space-rock band Schrasj while at Rice University in Houston, Loewenthal was now far more interested in hip hop. "It was all about those funky bass lines," she says.

The foursome recorded some demos with Mario Hernandez, leader of Alameda's From Bubblegum to Sky (see "The Fab One," Jan. 10) on drums. After releasing a single on tiny Shelflife Records, the group recorded "Spring" for a compilation and calendar by local label Paris Caramel. Kindercore Records had shown interest in past recordings, so Rubi sent the new songs along as well.

"At the time we were not looking for new bands, but we kept finding ourselves listening to the tape," Kindercore co-owner Ryan Lewis recalls. "The vocal interplay and the general hooky vibe of the music really caught me and stuck with me. I just loved their voices and the amazing harmonies and melodies they created."

Kindercore suggested the band fly out to Athens, play the upcoming Kindercore 2000 Expo music festival, and stay on to record an album. "We felt that recording in Athens would be a great way for Call and Response to meld its breezy, California sound with the free-spirited experimentation that Athens is known for," Lewis explains. Call and Response's members were all set to go, but a week before they were to leave Hernandez backed out. Frantic, they called on Jordan Dalrymple, who was already drumming with the Samba do Coração troupe, the improv group Subtle, and Bart Davenport's folk/rock project.

"I had seen them play and I thought they were good, but that something was missing, that they could be better," Dalrymple says.

"It was great because we played the songs for [Jordan and Terri] and they played them back better. They were playing the songs the way we wanted them to be," Judd says.

In preparation for the trip, the group recorded rough demos of the songs and sent them to Kindercore engineers Bill Doss and Derek Almstead. "This gave them the initial kick to get to know our songs," Rubi says. "We also made lists of instruments we wanted so they could find the people to play them." When the band members arrived, it was like summer camp. There were five other bands staying at the house, including a folk-pop duo from Norway called the Kings of Convenience that Rubi says "really affected our recording."

As for Call and Response's show at the Kindercore 2000, Editor Andy Greenwald had this to say: "They were easily the best band there that I didn't know about -- they were so refreshing. In the midst of this indie scene totally dominated by Elephant 6 retrograde groups and local Athens bands that write 70-minute long pop operas about cartoon characters, Call and Response was just about pop that was catchy and made people dance. The band came on and won the crowd over -- these shuffling, bespectacled indie kids really got into it."

The quintet was also able to see Doss' and Almstead's own bands, thebilldoss and Of Montreal.

"Derek is a bass player and he's so good, really funky and smooth -- you know he gets it," Loewenthal says.

"He was totally anal but so easy to work with, down-to-earth but really fun," Rubi says.

"And the other guys, like Kevin [Barnes from Of Montreal], were just calling and saying, "I need to be involved, when do you want me?'" Loewenthal says.

"It's like that down there: Everyone's on everyone's records," Clough says.

"I felt like, after a week, we were part of the scene," Loewenthal says. "The girl who played trumpet on the record -- her boyfriend was the pizza deliverer."

"And we rented movies from Kevin," Rubi says.

"It was magic in Athens," Loewenthal says.

Out of that magic came Call and Response, the most unorthodox record Kindercore has released. While previously the label had served as ground zero for "twee," an indie pop subgenre that is thoroughly stuck in childhood, with Call and Response the label graduated to adulthood -- albeit a kaleidoscopic version thereof.

Call and Response's songs certainly touch on twee subject matter -- blowing bubbles, roller skating, playing jacks -- but the band's sound is something completely new for the label. The record blends funk, hip hop, soul, and '60s soundtracks into one sleek sound that's miles away from twee's rudimentary jangle. "Lightbulb" kicks off with robotic drumbeats and processed vocals, then hits high gear with a stuttery guitar riff and wah-wah synth noises. "Stars Have Eyes," which is a rerecorded version of "Spring," flows from a Sly Stone'd Moog groove to the orchestral hum of Athens' swamp locusts to a spring-has-sprung Latin rhythm. "I Know You Want Me" is Call and Response at its most propulsive, organs buzzing around vocals that say "Get over here" instead of "Come hither."

While the group's lyrics don't extend too far past the Free Design's nonsensical positivity (i.e., "kites are fun"), it doesn't really matter. This is a band that can make a phrase like "I'm a lightbulb and I'm on fire" sound if not meaningful then worthy of endless repetition. At one point on "Rollerskate," Clough croons, "Loop de loop around the rink let's go I go I go I go," and you can feel yourself whizzing around the disco-balled pathway, your Day-Glo polyester jumpsuit ruffling in the wind. Clough's vocals, full of elastic, authoritative tones that owe equal debt to her operatic training and to her stated inspirations, Astrud Gilberto and Karen Carpenter, are strikingly pretty. When the rest of the band adds its harmonies, as on the sublimely sunny "Blowin' Bubbles," it's impossible not to give in to the songs' adamant pull.

Since returning from Athens the group has continued to tinker with its sound. "Now that the rhythm section is good, it gives us more confidence to experiment," Rubi says. "Mr. Weatherman," a track that Dalrymple edited down from long jams for a forthcoming compilation by Italian soundtrack-inspired pop label S.H.A.D.O., finds the band trying a more freaked-out psychedelic sound, while "Josie and Chloe" from the We Thank You: Kindercore 50 compilation sounds like '80s hip hop being covered in the 22nd century.

Meanwhile, Call and Response's cult continues to grow. In a recent post on Kindercore's chat room, www.egroups. com/group/kindercore, a teenage girl in Maryland described how she'd come home early from school, looking forward to a good wallow in self-pity, only to find the new Call and Response album had arrived via mail order. After listening to the CD, she slowly rose out of her misery. "Call and Response," she wrote, "[is] a funky and bittersweet and dreamy antidote to a really crappy day."

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Dan Strachota


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