Call and Response: self-titled

Call and Response
Call and Response
Emperor Norton

It is perhaps the equivalent of cultural beatification to be featured on NPR’s Fresh Air. Once Terry Gross ushers you into the hallowed halls of WHYY in Philadelphia, you have attained a level of middlebrow intelligentsia validation available only to the tasteful, the talented, and the left-leaning. How remarkable, then, that Call and Response’s debut album should have been reviewed on Fresh Air, when the likes of Neil Young had to wait 40 years to have Terry anoint them with her nasal tones. (Incidentally Neil did a great job thwarting Terry’s usual strategy of asking “thoughtful” questions that already contain the answer, and then waiting for the artist to confirm, less eloquently, what she’s already postulated. He would just shoot back a four syllable denial and leave her hanging!).

Now Call and Response weren’t interviewed, but the Fresh Air review and another in the only slightly more credible Washington Post may have been the impetus for the re-release of this album on Emperor Norton. EN has a distribution deal with their original label — Athens, Georgia’s Kindercore — and the idea is to make the album available to a wider audience — an audience already given the proverbial heads up by our friend in Philadelphia.

One imagines that in less enlightened circles, such an obvious gambit for broad cultural acceptance would be looked upon with disdain by people who spend their time worrying about these things. In this case, however, a few key points justify Call and Response’s action.

1. They’re really, really fucking good. They just are. Who cares if everybody likes them? Doesn’t everybody like the Beach Boys and Marvin Gaye?

2. They got Mikey Petralia to remix the album, and added two more tracks, which are also up to the stellar quality of the original. Petralia got his reputation producing people like Beck and Air — people who clearly benefit from competent production. It is worth buying the remix just to see what he does with the already luscious “Rollerskate”.

3. The Pet Sounds Screed and the Twee Screed (see below). The main idea here is that C.A.R. are smarter than many of their deliberately unironic forbears. There’s nothing calculated about their sunshine: it is totally genuine. Which makes them unassailable.

Now to address these points in order. The first, I suppose, you’ll have to take my word on, although if you want a second opinion you can ask my worthy colleague here at PopMatters, Eamon Joyce. He astutely observed the resemblance of the song “Blowin’ Bubbles” to the 1971 hit “Mr. Big Stuff” as a way to describe C.A.R.’s Motown/Stax influenced songwriting. Lots of people may invoke the good time sound, but few of them know how to craft a song so well without sounding like they’re ripping someone off. Even if you’re a die-hard Slipknot fan and you can’t stand anything with keyboards or women, you’ll have to admit that Call and Response make flawless pop.

The remixing and new tracks only add to this sense of seamless facility. One cannot imagine “Rollerskate” — a delicious tribute to that ’70s-era pastime — any more lush and swirling, and then Mr. Petralia gets his hands on it. Suddenly all that lushness is rendered with exquisite precision, even on my crappy boombox, with each little keyboard flourish standing out in fine relief. On top of that there are new vocals (in addition to everyone’s favorite: “Loop de loop, around the rink let’s go I go”) which deepen the mood without ever weighing down its cotton candy feel.

The new tracks: “All Night Long” starts off sounding like Madonna’s “Lucky Star” (same rhythm, bassline) and then adds cosmic keyboards; the chorus revives the best of disco by retaining the keyboard and lively bass (not that stereotyped step line), and sings of two hearts, secrets, and summer love. We’re carried out of this warmth with xylophone and sparkling “doot do doot do doot”s, more cosmic keyboard and shuffling cymbals. Awright! “When the Lights Are Out” errs on the side of spareness, earnestly pleading “come out of your shell”, only to practice what it preaches in a soulful chorus (think Laura Nyro). Light piano cascades and acoustic guitar make this track an exception in terms of its relative down-to-earth sound.

These two new tracks are slotted in different spots on the album, not tacked on the end, further enhancing their claim to equal status with the rest of this album. There’s so much to talk about here: from the joyful guitar comping on “Lightbulb” to its husky a capella harmonies and the fuzz guitar on “Map”, this album artfully reinscribes just about every feelgood clich√© in the book.

Which brings me to my Screeds. I often find myself talking about irony when talking about popular music, and when a band like C.A.R. comes out with such an unabashed upbeat sensibility it seems everybody wonders if they can really mean it. The Pet Sounds Screed addresses just this issue. This album, the Beach Boys last before the unfinished and hard-to-find Smile, has secured itself a permanent position in the hipster pantheon. Why? Because its wide-eyed vacuousness is supposed to be brilliant. And furthermore because this wide-eyed vacuousness is supposed to represent something essential about America — specifically the West Coast.

One might easily imagine that C.A.R.’s penchant for lyrics like “Put your finger on a map, and that’s where I am” and for songs about bubbles and rollerskating might invoke a Pet Sounds comparison. Not to mention the obvious geographical and thematic similarities concerning California. They are much too smart for that!! Keeping within the Beach Boys framework, their deadpan silliness approaches the far more beautiful and more absurd “Vegetables”, whose title says it all and whose soaring melody captures the attention far better than Pet Sounds sprawlings. Or, to further understand this principle, let’s move on to the Twee Screed.

If the authors of Salon are to be believed, twee is punk for sweet kids. If you ask me, twee is a lot of upper-middle-class college kids nurturing an affection for Japanese office supply products (all those tiny erasers!), Belle and Sebastian, and brightly colored nylon jackets. They don’t feel bitter or introspective or angry, but their simple sunshine is also laced with a lot of heavy duty cultural positioning. They don’t really enjoy themselves — all the twee kids I knew in college were just as sullen and shy as the normal indie kids — but they pretend to enjoy the simple and sweet as a critique of most indie bands’ fondness for the dark and despondent.

Sorry kids, but it don’t work that way! You can’t keep your eyes wide open while you’re winking. And if you haven’t noticed, Hello Kitty has no mouth! She couldn’t even smile if she wanted to! She’s a symbol of the melancholy of post-Hiroshima Japan! Sheesh!

All I’m saying is Call and Response would never bungle their way into either of those untenable but highly popular positions. Which is why I think that if everybody started to love them it might be a truly positive thing, just like (as Eamon says) if everybody started smiling at strangers on the street. There’s no agenda here that mass acceptance would thwart — you just can’t tarnish true shine.