Take Ral of Me

Tracking down the mysteries behind Ral Partha Vogelbacher's cinematic break-up album

When the climb gets tough somewhere south of Cole Valley, I blame Chad Bidwell's mom. Bidwell, the San Francisco singer/songwriter better known under his nom de band Ral Partha Vogelbacher, has been exploring the secret stairways of San Francisco for the past few months, ever since his mother came to visit with an article highlighting the Bay Area's scenic steps.

"She was here for a couple weeks," Bidwell explains, clutching a worn copy of the guidebook Stairway Walks in San Francisco. "We would take one or two of these [tours] a day. They were going through parts of the city I didn't even know existed -- all these hidden parks and neighborhoods. When she left, I kept doing them by myself."

Bidwell -- with his curly black hair, bemused eyes, and pencil-thin mustache -- looks more like a villain from a vaudeville play than the kind of guy you'd expect to find traipsing down canopied pathways, happily pointing out a verdant green space where he'd seen kids playing after Christmas.

José Marquez


Celebrating the release of Kite Vs. Obelisk

Thursday, Feb. 6, at 10 p.m.

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One of the most imaginative lyricists in the Bay Area, Bidwell is known for packing each of his short songs with a semester's reading list worth of historical references, geographic coordinates, and oddball characters. In person, though, the songwriter has none of the manic storyteller about him. He talks carefully, at pace with our footfalls, ambling as if ready to double back when the path becomes less sure.

This tentative quality makes the circuitous stairways of San Francisco a natural meeting place, as well as an apt metaphor for the Ral Partha experience. With a discography spread along the less-traveled roads of Bay Area indie folk-rock, Chad Bidwell walks a fine line between the exhilaratingly beautiful and the utterly impenetrable. Like the back-alley stairways we climb, it's easy enough to wander through Ral Partha's music, content to take in the sights. But to really understand any of it, you need a map.

First things first: The Ral Partha moniker is a marriage of a company that makes lead figurines for Dungeons & Dragons, and Pierre Vogelbacher, a childhood friend and tormentor of Bidwell's.

The impressively unmemorable name -- like most of Bidwell's early recordings -- was never meant for public consumption. When he began crafting his songs almost a decade ago, his audience was as minuscule as it was unenthusiastic.

"My girlfriend at the time would call me up and say, 'What are you doing? I'm embarrassed for you. You need to stop doing this,'" Bidwell says, laughing.

A computer programmer by trade, Bidwell persevered anyway, moussing his plain bowl-cut of a voice into a variety of styles, from Silver Jews baritone to Elliott Smith falsetto. The two constants throughout his early recordings -- released on his own label, Megalon -- were his spare acoustic-guitar playing and his literate turns of phrase.

On his 2001 debut full-length, The More Nice Fey Elven Gnomes Are Hiding in My Toilet Again, his use of language stole the show completely, often at the expense of sound quality and flub-free takes. Much of his lackadaisical recording ethic at the time, Bidwell admits, was just a way to avoid facing the shortcomings of a voice he never felt quite comfortable with.

"It was always kind of embarrassing to continue to sing over and over these parts and always be off-key," Bidwell says. "It was just like, "Let's just go through it -- it doesn't matter because I'm never going to get this right.'"

Despite the demo-y sound of Elven Gnomes, the songs found an enthusiastic audience, especially among a handful of San Francisco musicians. David Kesler of Thee More Shallows, was taken by the vividness of Bidwell's imagery, and the effortless way he packed a single song with enough perfect lines for a whole album. "If there was an indie rhyming competition, Chad would destroy everybody," Kesler says via phone. "I've seen him reel off reams of lyrics off the top of his head; it's a natural gift for him. You just don't see that very often."

Elven Gnomes also went over well in England. London's Monotreme Records released the subsequent Whistle Like You Mean It EP in 2001, and hoped to put out a single immediately afterwards. But the international market would have to wait: What started out as a quick session at Scott Solter's 15th Street Studio for "Luck on Every Finger" soon grew into an EP, which then -- with the help of a half-dozen guest musicians, including the Cubby Creatures' Jason Gonzales, Court & Spark's Wendy Allen, and Kesler and his bandmate Tadas Kisielius -- evolved into a full album.

Under Solter's direction, the resulting Kite Vs. Obelisk LP became the sonically adventurous record Bidwell had never had the patience to make. The music -- fleshed out with achy bits of pedal steel, quavery tremoloed electric guitars, sighs of trumpet, and strange analog effects -- rings with the goofy prog of Wowee Zowee-era Pavement. Fans of Neutral Milk Hotel will also hear traces of Jeff Mangum's bewildered, possessed poetics on songs like "Jasper Downs, III," and there's even a touch of Creedence's classic-rock riffage on "Wrong Bike."

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