By Jim Schutze
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It starts -- surprisingly, frustratingly -- with a question of etiquette, after half a dozen calls to the appropriate cell-phone number at the appropriate time, and the only thing picking up is a voice-mail greeting. Is it proper to leave a message at the end of each call, or hang up every time like a complete stalker? This question is inevitable when trying to reach out and touch someone on tour, but it's annoying nonetheless. When someone finally picks up, the situation doesn't improve much. The signal is faint, and the person on the other end is abrupt. "Oh shit! Call back in five minutes."Fifteen minutes later, the speaker, a man named Cory who gives his last name -- after a pause long enough to nullify his answer -- as "Shane," is still "in the middle of nowhere Indiana, heading toward Chicago," but is fortunately in a spot with slightly better reception. Shane is one of the four members of the Washington, D.C.-based rock band The Rondelles. In fact, Shane is the newest addition to the band, his guitar backing up the trademark two-string strumming of singer Juliet (who made no attempts to make up a last name for this story).
As interviews go, well, it's a bit less exciting than talking to the drummer. Shane hasn't recorded with The Rondelles yet, aside from playing tambourine on a track that didn't make the group's last album, The Fox, which was released last August on Teenbeat Records. "Yeah, I'm really in the band now," he says, mock defensively. He has reason to be touchy about the subject: The fans on the band's e-mail list have been harsh, calling Shane, among other things, "subcute." Ouch.
No mistake about it: The Rondelles are a very cute band in every way possible. But that doesn't mean there is more style than substance involved in the group's sound, which is deceptively but unabashedly pop, a few degrees shy of giddy. Drummer Oakley (who also, apparently, has no last name) uses a three-piece stand-up kit to allow for atonal Casio access with a spare drumstick. Yukiko ("my last name is Yvonne") is adept at picking up the melody with her bass where Juliet's guitar drops it off. The vocals are aloof, Nancy Sinatra with fake-Cockney flats.
Taking the name of an unimportant 1960s Memphis pop act, the band formed four years ago as high schoolers in Albuquerque and moved to D.C. shortly thereafter. Of the handful of records they've issued on several higher-profile indie labels in that time (Teenbeat, K, Smells Like, Super 8), two in particular stand out. The Rondelles' initial charm is most apparent, perhaps, on their 1998 self-titled debut seven-inch EP. Featuring bare-bones instrumentation and four songs about being annoyed with romance, calling up old flames' disconnected numbers, and turning up the stereo to drown out the sound of screwing in the next room, the disc is possibly the clearest snapshot of the band that has developed so far.
Except for The Fox. The band's technical and songwriting skills are constantly evolving, and The Fox, released last fall, pairs actual musicianship with goofy, honest, and sincere lyrical sensibilities. The sound bears more resemblance to Jerry Harrison-era Modern Lovers than to teen-exploitation dreams The Donnas or garage-rock impressionist act The Brentwoods, though many critics have assumed otherwise. Maybe it's the production values that have them confused: No band sounds better when recorded, seemingly, from the bottom of a 50-gallon drum.
Live, The Rondelles are notoriously sloppy, often aided by alcohol and constant technical difficulties. Shane shrugs this off. "I think there's something wrong with people who expect a live show to sound as good as a record, or identical to it," he says. "It's like, get over it. A lot of time I don't think we're even sloppy, just working things out, which is how you make music, y'know. I think people who don't like the live show aren't really" -- he tries to find the right phrase -- "getting it."
Their falling-apart-at-the-seams shows are part of what makes The Rondelles special to their ever-growing fan base. But there's more: They neither strive for nor fear being coy, fickle, teenage, and, yes, girly. The band carries on the rec-room-rock torch of the co-ed Teenbeat Records cradle that spawned Unrest and Tuscadero in the 1990s into an era hungry for smarter idols of adolescence. The teenage-girl-rock branding is, to paraphrase John Hughes, "a double-edged sword."
"I don't think people concentrate on us as a band, because we're young, and we look really young," Shane, 22, says. "There are a lot of people our age in rock bands, but they're not as cute and clean as us, all that hard living makes them look haggard and older." Oakley, Juliet, and Yukiko are all -- wink, wink -- 21.
"Don't tell them we're not 21!" Yvonne yells from the front seat. "They won't give us anything to drink." The driver of the van, Sean Tillman--22 years old, frontman of Sean Na Na, and a veteran of recording and touring since age 18 as a member of Calvin Krime--laughs.
The more obvious dynamic might be found along gender lines. Shane, the newest male in a band cited this week by Time magazine as a "formidable [female] band," has perhaps the best response to the question. "Having girls in the band," he pauses, "is good. People are much nicer to Oakley and me and treat us with touches of grace and class. We'd be treated like nothing if we were just males. And, God, they're not angry, they're not feminists, they're just...girls." Once again, Yvonne pipes up to defend herself, and Tillman laughs.
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