Talking to Simone (pronounced see-moan) Rubi of San Francisco's Call and Response is a bit like listening to her band's music: Neither stays on course for very long before veering off in a different direction.
"You know what? I'm really bad at answering questions and staying true to the question," offers Rubi--who plays all variety of synths and keyboards and sings in the band--as an apology. In reality, and also like the band's music, this tendency is extremely charming.
The band's origins are in Santa Barbara, where high school chums Rubi, guitarist/singer Dan Judd and organist and classically trained vocalist Carrie Clough reconnected after years of being apart, along with a couple of other friends who have since been replaced by bassist/singer Terri Loewenthal and drummer/singer Jordan Dalrymple. They began jamming together, playing instrumentals heavy on the Moog, but it wasn't long before the sessions began to reveal actual song structures.
"These tight-knit songs started forming pretty fast," says Rubi. "We were determined that if we were going to have any vocals we'd have to do a lot of cool harmony work and really make that part of the music. Kinda like the old groups, y'know?" But while the Call and Response sound was beginning to take form and the members were having a blast writing songs, the shows the band played in Santa Barbara were far less than successful.
"People did not get us down there at all," explains Rubi. But rather than throw in the towel to a scene that thought they were insane to play pretty pop tunes with a palpable innocence, eventually the band headed north. In its new S.F. digs, the band has flourished in a number of ways. Most importantly perhaps, it's found a like-minded audience of folks who appreciate what it's doing as much as the band members do. But the new locale has also sent them in different musical directions, thanks in no small part to some excellent local record stores.
"We have Amoeba Records, which are these famous record stores that have an obscene amount of records. We'd one-up each other and go, 'God, listen to this, listen to this!' and have record-listening parties. And pretty soon we're listening to, like, some weird hippie funk from 1981. The [band's] sound evolves with the more research we do. We've always been into researching sounds and collecting from so many different areas and genres." And when a band comprises a bunch of garage-sale musicologists, it can't help but rub off on the music they're making for themselves.
Rubi explains Call and Response's m.o. thusly: "We do think that in some respects we are sort of modernists, and we like to make things new and not seem old. So whether it's blending a medieval folk guitar style with a disco beat, or whatever, we keep trying to reinvent ourselves."
Eventually CAR began to record some demos and sent them off to twee-pop Athens, Ga. label Kindercore Records, whose execs instructed the band to keep them posted on the band's doings. A few months later, after hearing a 7-inch single released on another label, Kindercore called back and said that they wanted to put out their album, and arranged for the band to go to Athens to record with Elephant 6ers Derek Almstead (Of Montreal) and Bill Doss (Olivia Tremor Control, The Sunshine Fix). Tossed into a scene noted for its artful pop, the band felt right at home.
"We had the time of our lives," Rubi says. "It was the funnest two weeks ever. Everyone in Athens basically came out and hung with us every day at the recording, wanted to be a part of it, wanted to play on it, wanted to sing on it. It was a really good vibe. It was weird 'cause they come from a different school than we do, but somehow it blended really well because we all listen to the same records, basically. We're super outgoing and just in it for fun and they are, too, so we just got crazy and did weird shit all the time."
The self-titled album was originally released on Kindercore in January, but fellow indie label Emperor Norton, which boasts better distribution, released a revamped version (two extra tracks, and some extra parts added to some of the existing ones, courtesy of producer Mickey Petralia, who has worked with Beck and Air) early in October.
OBVIOUSLY, THE BAND'S SOUND is not easy to describe, though singular elements can be isolated. The bass lines, for example, are pure '70s funk, albeit played in a somewhat subdued fashion, and the guitar parts often follow in the same vein. But the keys and synths add a sense of retro futurism similar to, but not as cheeky as, those found in the music of Stereolab.
The vocals are always lovely, whether as a single voice or those delectable harmonies to which Rubi previously referred (there are more "ba-ba-ba"s and "doot-doo-doo"s on the album than just about any other in recent memory), while the lyrics are all wide-eyed innocence, the kind that seem a bit too precious when read on the page; in context, though, it all makes perfect sense. The overall sound, then, is a breezy yet still danceable one, perhaps most tidily summed up by one of the band's song titles, "California Floating in Space."
"You can hear a kind of longing in the songs, but then the lyrics are really happy," explains Rubi. "Especially at a time with all this hip-hop/metal stuff, it's so over the top it's almost obscene. So we were trying to bring back the idea of beautiful music again." They're immensely successful.
Take, for example, the disc's "Rollerskate," as perfect a pop song as you'll ever hear. A subtly funky bass, a guitar part that would sound right at home on a Breezin'-era George Benson album, and '60s-era vibraphone plunking (or at least the synth equivalent) all combine to sonically re-create the shared experience of a butterfly-stomached teenaged couple on a moonlight skate around the mirror ball-lit rink.
Add to the equation a chorus that states, "Before you learn how to walk / Before you learn how to rock / You learn to rollerskate," a bridge of "Loop-di-loop / Around the rink / Let's go, I go," and "whoa-hoa, whoa-hoa" backing harmonies on the verses, and you've got yourself what amounts to an entirely modern and far more tasteful version of what used to be called easy-listening music.
And don't forget, you can dance to it, too.