Pretty Scary in Pink
Cadallaca and the Frumpies
By Stephanie Zacharek
JANUARY 4, 1999: It's always summertime on the Cadallaca CD Introducing Cadallaca (K), a side project of Sleater-Kinney's Corin Tucker that also features two members of the Lookers, vocalist and organist Sarah Dougher and a drummer known as sts. It's sometimes summertime on the Frumpies' Frumpie One Piece (Kill Rock Stars) -- just not nearly enough. You could look at the two albums as separate flowering branches off the tree trunk that was once riot grrrl (the Frumpies' Tobi Vail and Kathi Wilcox are late of Bikini Kill, Corin Tucker a veteran of Heavens to Betsy), but at this point, the bands that have grown out of that short-lived movement seem to be stretching -- or inching -- in such disparate directions that they're on their way to becoming different species.
The Frumpies are an example of a band that maybe haven't moved fast enough in their chosen direction: you can see their molasses-like progression on the 24-track One Piece, which covers a range of songs recorded by the band from 1992 until early 1998. Introducing Cadallaca, on the other hand, has just the right balance of depth and lightness, especially for a side project: this is hardly a throwaway disc. Cadallaca shoot right out of the gate, kicking up dirt and stardust in their wake.
One Piece takes patience. The early material tramps thoroughly on vintage riot grrrl themes -- particularly the one that became tired most quickly: "You fucked me over, so fuck you." Track by track, you do hear progress: the twinkly, slow guitars on 1993's "Weary Ingenues and Snotty Brats" have slightly more depth, and on "Eunuch Nights," Kathi Wilcox's vocals have a buzzing, bouffant quality that plays nicely off the rangy guitars. But One Piece doesn't really take off until the last track, the spectacular rave-up "Wrong Way Round." "It's 1996 in America/We can't get our kicks in America/All the bands sound like U2 in America/Nothing left to do in America," Wilcox sings, her frustration bristling like static. They can clone a sheep and shoot a politician out into space, and still, there ain't no cure for the summertime blues.
Introducing Cadallaca is packaged as a novelty album, a kitsch relic of '50s and '60s pop. The band members are billed as Kissy, Dusty, and Junior; on the CD cover, they're lined up in a pristine 1966 El Dorado convertible. And K Records' Calvin Johnson, who also produced the disc, has written introductory liner notes that mimic the way record companies used to sell new acts to "the kids": "Leading off the new breed of self-contained groups emerging from America's youth, all ten of the songs on this long-player have been composed by the members of Cadallaca themselves."
The gags are funny enough, but self-aware smirkiness is nowhere to be found -- thank God -- in the actual texts of the songs. Introducing Cadallaca is a shimmery little hybrid -- postpunk with an easy, casual sense of history, its surfer drums and rippling but pared-down organ lines betraying references that stretch back 30 years, 20, or maybe just 10, as if the ghosts of the Ventures and Booker T. and the MGs had been channeled through the soul of the Raincoats. It's a vision of late '50s America reinvented with girls as the protagonists. Yet it's not a gimmicky "What if girls ruled the earth?" kind of thing, a poptopia vision of all the mistakes that would never be made. Instead, it's a world in which girls are subject to all the embarrassment and humiliation (as well as the occasional moments of carefree bliss) that boys have been experiencing for centuries.
In the world of Cadallaca, girls have to call up other girls to make the first move, as on "O Chenilla": the song opens with a phone ringing expectantly; the caller clears her voice before the girl on the other end picks up, and then asks -- with a mix of nervousness and breezy confidence -- if she might like to go out Friday night (or, if not Friday, Saturday -- "no" isn't much of an option). Chenilla goes with guys and girls, breaks lots of hearts, and her pursuer knows it but can't stay away. "You girls think she's such a drag, but I know better, I know better," Dougher sings in her shiny-penny voice, but even with sts's Malibu rhythms rolling the song forward with unmistakable bravado, you still hear the curlicue of uncertainty Dougher tacks onto the end of the line.
Dougher and Tucker are a great match: their harmonies rank among the
sweetest-sounding vocals of last year. But without even trying, Tucker -- one
of the most thrilling rock-and-roll singers of the '90s -- steals the show. On
"June-n-July," she sings in the guise of a war veteran recalling an event he
(or she?) can hardly bear to recall: "Wrote this song in '42, I'll reincarnate
just for you/Marching to the battle drum, when this song was just a hum/Rolling
in my head." Tucker's voice -- a hummingbird's thrum plugged into an electrical
current -- carries the song's sense of narrative easily, naturally.
"June-n-July" stands as a gorgeous contrast to the sun and fun of the rest of
the disc. Leave it to Tucker to show us the other side of summer.
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