I’ve listened to a lot of lo-fi bands over the last decade or two. From Airport 5 to Zoppo, I’ve enjoyed them all. I’m also a musician; I understand the marketability and application of a genre that has resurfaced more than once in our time and has given birth to a new attitude in the recording of music. Like everything else that comes into popular focus, the selling possibilities widen to encompass everything from photography to stage and studio gadgets that allow seasoned bigwigs to turn their expensive projects into something that sounds like DIY college garage music.
Rino Breebaart of Slow Review wrote a great piece on the origins of lo-fi, and summed it up with a poignant Brian Eno quote: “Once a technology has been supplanted, then its formal limitations take on the retro chic of realism and immediacy, and people start seeking it out as a medium.”
At one time, lo-fi was just the way things happened. Passionate and in the moment, most famous recordings were done on the fly and without spending hours in the studio or years in the pre-production stages. My number one example is Bob Dylan and the famed Basement Tapes. Dylan and The Band were probably the very first lo-fi hipsters on the “pink house” planet, locking themselves in that New York State ranch and just recording everything that came to them without glossing it in production.
Evolution and technology took music to some ridiculously over-produced places in the ‘70s and ‘80s. However, about the same time as the heavy metal dinosaurs succumbed to Nirvana in the early ‘90s, simple and honest music was already coming back into vogue. The industry was quick to notice the music-buying public’s disillusion and adapted from cigar-chomping fat cats spending thousands to geek-commander-of-the-basement studios in order to stay alive.
As Brian Eno said about the transformation of everything that becomes well-known, lo-fi has gone a step further, becoming a two-lane, art versus money conception roadway. Some of you are aware of the platters offered by Kurt Vile, War On Drugs, Black Tambourine and Bantam Rooster (bands that stayed to the hardcore, lo-fi left), while most of us have heard of The White Stripes or The Black Keys (bands that took to the commercial side of the super highway to achieve broader appeal).
No Wine For Kittens is a band that sits somewhere in between those two avenues. They come from a direction that contains rebellion, passion, and the skill of capturing fast moving life, but they also have high hopes and dreams of becoming a successful commodity. While the band has never actually given the nod towards the commercial side of the street, their quirky and fun-filled compositions march to a very likeable beat.
No Wine For Kittens has always been a bit of a wallflower—not that they don’t draw attention. They definitely do that well as demonstrated by the full houses they play to. They don’t associate themselves with the same tired styles or clamor for generic shore attention in an area overflowing with Springsteen clones and Americana cowboys. If anything, NWFK could be thought of as one of this generation’s musical “ambassadors” on the scene today. Their honest presentation and lack of industry idolatry is a breath of fresh air in an area brimming with boring, over-rehearsed genres.
Their latest EP, Not Ready Yet, is an idealistic look through the bramble of their ongoing existence and told through the collective minds of a band that fits together like interlocked puzzle pieces.
Not Ready Yet is short on content, but the six-song disc proves to be filled with introspective thought and emotion as it convinces the listener of its worth. Produced by NWFK drummer Andy Bova in his own basement headquarters, the CD showcases the good, the bad, and the ugly of making real music. Little attention is focused on smooth, commercial tricks and the fuzzy result is along the sonic lines of The Sundays meets Guided By Voices.
The disc fires up with “Even,” a shimmering tune that has Bova using real items for effect as he starts this song. I especially like that someone (probably James Stahon) is pounding on an actual amp for the reverb tank ‘thunder’ that explodes in the background. Drums build from simplistic TR-606 downbeats to ‘60s backbeats alongside the stark bass work of Justin Bornemann. The clever guitar work of James Stahon is intricate and deceptively simple. Passages glimmer and sparkle in short bursts of chord voicing and melodic, single-note patterns kept back just far enough in the mix to give Barry and Whitt their soaring space.
“Summer Seems Hopeless” launches with drum machine efficiency and dirty, droning guitars before exploding into the first verse. I hate to overuse a word, but “sonic” truly comes to mind when describing this anthem dedicated to the relationship mess that someone left behind. Sunny, cheery, and lyrically jaded, NWFK shines nova-bright in their juxtaposition of mixed emotions. Signature Barry lyrics burn into the heart of the past as Nikki Whitt smoothes the savage delivery of the words. James Stahon slides from full-bore distortion to chimey, Ebow-drenched sustainer runs like no one else can.
“Emily” (In Which We Say Hello) should be a radioland hit for this band. It has to be. I like it the least. Don’t get me wrong—it’s well-built and has the uncanny power of getting you to sing along after one or two plays, but it’s just too sweet for me. Think Bananarama or The Bangles and you would be right on the money. “Emily” is total retro new wave hip. Whitt really shines on this cut. Her voice is unique and this band frames her frail melodic style perfectly. Not sure who plays the keyboards on this cut but they blare louder and prouder than anything The Attractions ever put out. The only thing that’s missing from this quirky bopper is Molly Ringwald dancing around Jud Nelson’s detention desk.
“Guilty Winds” (In Which A Decision Must Be Made) comes out of the speakers with Lennon-esque upright (slightly out of tune) piano as Bova throws down a robotic 4/4 drum machine before mixing percussive elements into the verse. The bridge/chorus section is complex and filled with lots of orchestrated sound. Think Deerhoof meets The Decemberists and you’d be in the right area with this arabesque tune. Stahon’s Big Country middle-eight could easily put him on top of a mountain with helicopters circling for the video. Utilizing multiple octaves and Clash-styled downstrokes, Stahon drops this song into a five-gallon bucket of champagne supernovas.
Whitt commands spotlight attention on “Hey You.” Her voice is infectious when she takes the lead. She exudes just enough vulnerability and innocence to lure the listener into the body of the song where she once again joins Rick Barry and company to sell you their sounds. If Nikki sticks with this compositional style and team, she’s going to go further than the Cookman Avenue crazies could ever dream.
Rick Barry takes the lead on the disc closer, “All Your Things, They Wait for You” (In Which We Say Farewell). Ethereal and Paul Simon somber, this is the Rick Barry I’ve grown to appreciate and understand over the years. Swatches of compositional gray twist throughout this haunted vision of unrequited love, regret, and the bottomless pit of not moving on.
Not Ready Yet may be the title of the disc, but it doesn’t pertain to this band that is more than ready to step out of their backyard and into a much bigger world of original thought and sound. To catch up with the band, head over to nowineforkittens.com.