The Fox and the Hounded

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.

Nothing has held The Rondelles back yet, not age, gender, or even lack of experience. Whereas a supposedly more established act like Sean Na Na has trouble giving his records away (promo copies for his debut managed to get lost at the post office twice), The Fox and its predecessor, Fiction Romance Fast Machines, have gotten rave reviews. Besides receiving critical praise, The Rondelles have scored credibility among their peers as well, appearing on the bill at the recent Ladyfest 2000, a girl-friendly Olympia, Washington-based equivalent to Woodstock, alongside groups such as Bratmobile, Sleater-Kinney, and Cat Power. Not bad for a band from Albuquerque.

Of course, those Albuquerque days are long gone, and getting further away. The band has taken on a new persona since their days in Albuquerque, and part of that, says Shane, is shedding the skin of the teenage garage band. Shane, as a spokesperson and figurative proud older brother, offers his bit of wisdom. "I think that part of getting older is growing out of doing things how you were doing them originally," he says. "They've been playing together for four years, and that's been a long time for them in a lot of ways."

Right now, in the middle of Indiana, the cell phone's signal is breaking up again. The band is four days into a three-week summer tour, ostensibly supporting an album released last fall, but mostly just touring for the hell of it; the tour was postponed during the school year while Yvonne attends George Washington University. Their kitschy act has served them well, but The Rondelles are streamlining, giving some things up. After all, it's hard to keep singing about cute boys in math class when you've reached legal drinking age.

"Juliet doesn't even like to do the earlier stuff," Shane says. "We do a few songs because people like them. The first few records are nothing compared to what they're doing now, and even that's nothing compared to what's going on in their heads right now."

Shane's yelling over the static. I agree to call back the next afternoon, after they get to Minneapolis. This time, when the voice mail picks up again, I blow it off. After all, how much longer do they need to ask the general public to just listen and let them mess around until they get things right? From the sound of it, it won't be too long. The Fox and the HoundedOr: How The Rondelles deal with being the cutest band on EarthBY AMELIA ABREU

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amelia Abreu