Que Sara, Sara
"I started listening to different things, especially Liz Phair and Elliott Smith," says Sara Radle, whose CD You Can't Make Everybody Like You comes out this week, "and I started challenging myself to write things that weren't just three-chord punk songs."
On Wednesday night, the smart drunks come out. And for good reason: Bars have perks during the week, including cheaper drinks, easier parking and less annoying crowds. There isn't much music during the hump, however, and the few musicians who do land weeknight gigs are often open-mike lackeys or, um, open-mike lackeys.
With this in mind, I wasn't too excited about checking out Lower Greenville's Muddy Waters for a Wednesday-night show. I had drinking to do, for chrissakes. But when I walked into the bar, Sara Radle and Her Band were onstage, and I wondered if I was already drunk. Sara Radle? The lead singer from Lucy Loves Schroeder, Dallas' most prominent pop-punk band, playing an acoustic show complete with flute, piano and backup singers? For once, I could enjoy a Wednesday-night concert. Fun and low-key, Radle and her five bandmates smiled at each other as they played an hour of nicely arranged pop, and it was light-years ahead of anything I'd heard from LLS's three-chord attack.
Last week, I sat down with Radle to ask about her new direction in music. Abandoning Lucy Loves Schroeder, their deal with Beatville Records and Radle's cushy spot in Dallas' pop-punk scene is a bold move in a town where singer-songwriters rarely reach top billing, but Radle hopes her latest release, You Can't Make Everybody Like You, doesn't quite live up to its name.
"I started Lucy Loves Schroeder when I was 17," says Radle (who is also the Dallas Observer's music listings editor), now 25, "and that's what I was listening to--pop-punk-pop-punk, all the time--so that's what I wrote. Also, I wasn't a very good guitar player. Not that I'm phenomenal now, but it's a lot easier to play pop-punk and start a pop-punk band."
Radle grew up in San Antonio with folksinging parents and piano lessons and choir at a young age. Music was never as much a choice as an ingrained part of her life. It's the kind of story not quite befitting her old style in LLS, whose snarl-toothed Lucy Is a Band seems the polar opposite of the cheerful woman sitting before me.
"As the years went by," Radle says, "I started writing things that were a little more challenging, things that were beyond the scope of a three-piece band."
Radle wrote and arranged all the new songs herself, and what's more, she played every instrument on You Can't, the first release from Jeez Louise, a label she started with her boyfriend and bandmate, former [DARYL] guitarist Dave Wilson. (The pAper chAse's John Congleton recorded the album at the paper house and Last Beat.) Her own songs, her own production, her own label? Radle laughs off the idea that she was ever Dallas' pop-punk princess, but considering the work and growth she's undertaken these days, "queen" may be a better fit.
Her songwriting has matured on all fronts, even more so than under her old solo moniker Fred Savage Fan Club. The songs closest to standard pop-rock fare are sprinkled with harmony vocals and playful keyboard lines, while other songs take advantage of slower, more deliberate arrangements. "Betty Page," in particular, is a tensely arranged battle between bass guitar and piano that sounds like a road trip co-piloted by Liz Phair and Mary Timony. Furthermore, Radle has made progress with her plaintive lyrical approach, and the many-angled dissection of breaking up throughout You Can't is the kind of stuff that could make teenage girls sell their Avril Lavigne CDs in droves.
The separate developments come together in charming moments; near the end of "Nothing Charming," Radle pleads, "I hope you don't hate me now," over a sudden flourish of drums, organ and guitar. Even the mightiest guys may grab their speakers and whisper, "Of course I don't!" in response. "2.5" succeeds by turning the division of post-breakup possessions into a quick-lipped pop frenzy whose keyboards graduated from Elvis Costello University with flying colors.
"It's definitely a breakup record," Radle says. "It's not like I haven't broken up before, but I used to always keep in mind the person I was writing about. What would they think if they heard this? Then I reached a point where I realized I should write for me and not care what people think. I guess it's a little blunt."
Talk about an understatement. "Sure You've Heard" is a gloveless affair that comes out swinging with "You ask why I don't call/And you've got no clue at all/Well, I can't tell you everything you want to hear." Meanwhile, "A Mess Like You" wears a catchy melody to disguise its depression, and "Stupid Little Circles" accepts the slings and arrows of former friends with head held high. Radle's balance of confidence and humility may not win over all listeners, but it's much easier to swallow than a Jagged Little Pill.
Let's not lose sight of the album's context, though; it's not quite Horses or Exile From Guyville. Rather, the importance of You Can't is the way it bridges Radle's musical past and present, and it's a promising document of where she may be headed.
"I don't even know where it's going," Radle says. "In a three-piece, I'd write songs within those means. Now it's like, 'Oh, wait, I can have violin.' Or, 'I can add flute to this part.' If I know I have those instruments, I'll write them into the song. We always joke that we're going to need bleachers like the Polyphonic Spree, the way I'm adding parts."
This enthusiasm spilled into talk about the record label. Jeez Louise Records started as a means of self-releasing You Can't, but it grew into a full-on, multiband affair designed to release local albums without charging bands for studio time. Radle and Wilson expressed confidence in this artist-friendly approach and its shot at success, if only on a small scale for now.
"It's not hard to put out a record," Radle says. "That's where it all came from. Dave started building his studio, and we figured, 'Why not help out other bands, get their stuff out locally?' Honestly, we'll probably break even, and right now that's our highest hope." She continues, "The label is all about helping out bands. There are a lot of great bands in Dallas, and we just want to make [putting out records] a little easier on them."
"We've been around long enough," Wilson adds, "and we both have enough resources to book just about anywhere we want to book a show locally. It grew from there: We can book for other bands, promote other bands, promote ourselves; we can record ourselves, put out the record ourselves."
In part, this is why both Radle and Wilson gave up status as recognizable fixtures in the Dallas music scene--their stature gave them confidence to take professional steps. Radle has more freedom in her songwriting, and Wilson has more responsibility with a studio and label. Considering how much they smile onstage these days, it looks like the right choice.
I asked Radle what encouragement she might offer to girls who want to make it in a male-dominated local music scene. Her response, however, was perfectly unisex.
"You won't get shows without a demo," she says. Wilson added, "You won't get a demo without songs." Radle threw in other generally positive advice: Don't give up, find people who are as passionate about music as you are and so on. Still, it was obvious that she couldn't care less about the female angle I kept trying to suggest, and furthermore, her confidence made me feel a bit silly for mentioning it. After all, anybody can make it happen in local music--no matter the genre or the gender--with hard work and confidence. Still, being queen doesn't hurt.
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