It’s no secret that Kimchee has a thing for smart, moody women. They’re featured on most of the local label’s CDs: Blake Hazard, Heidi Saperstein, Thalia Zedek (forthcoming), Cordelia’s Dad (with singer Cath Oss), Helms (with bassist Tina Helms), and 27 (with frontwoman Maria Christopher). Along with a love for that demographic, the label is also developing a trademark sound: mostly guitar rock with a somber bent, from musicians who’ve gotten the blasting out of their system and are ready to move onto something a little subtler and edgier.
"I know that a lot of people are saying we’re a melancholy, post-rock label, and yeah, I can see that," says co-owner Bob Dubrow. "If anything, I think we’re doing music that’s not specifically for 20-year-olds. There are already so many labels out there who are doing the punk or emo thing, and that’s nearly all by men anyway. So that leaves a lot open for us."
More to the point, Kimchee is earning the kind of credibility you find in an operation that’s run for and by serious music fans. It was founded six years ago to release WMBR’s Pipeline compilation (founders Dubrow and Andy Hong both worked on that show, which Dubrow still hosts), but only recently has it become a fully functioning label. In recent months Kimchee has attracted some artists who’ve made a name with bigger indies. There have been releases by the label’s resident guitar heroes (and only male solo artists), Chris Brokaw and Geoff Farina. Signing Blake Hazard — who was getting courted by bigger labels but wanted to work with a home-town company she felt comfortable with — was one feather in the cap. So was getting Zedek, who’s between Matador releases and offered a covers EP. ("She wound up giving us four originals and two covers," Dubrow says. "She asked if I minded and I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ "). And this year they’ve set the ambitious goal of putting out one new release per month. "We’ve already lost our shirt," Dubrow admits. "And we’re working on the pants as well."
As for the apparent weakness for women artists, he protests, "I don’t think women and weakness go hand in hand — how’s that for an answer? No, if we’re into anything, it’s music that has a lot of craft and a certain heat to it. Music that might help a depressed person come out the other side."
Prime examples are a pair of CDs released on the label this month: The Good Night, by Victory at Sea (who on this disc are largely a duo of singer/guitarist Mona Elliott and bassist Mel Lederman), and Seana Carmody’s Struts & Shocks. The two frontwomen came to their sound from different routes. Elliott was in the hyper-noisy band Spore and started doing solo gigs before teaming up with Lederman six years ago. Carmody went from another noisy band, the Swirlies, to the fantasy-driven, prog-influenced Syrup USA, and she also did acoustic gigs before plugging in for her solo debut. The two singers are long-time collaborators and drinking buddies; the discs even clock in at about the same length, 33 minutes each.
"It’s totally incestuous," Carmody notes when the four of us sit down at the Middle East. "Let’s see: Mona and I used to be roommates; and of course Christina used to be in the Swirlies [that’s drummer Christina Files, later of Victory at Sea and now with Mary Timony]. Then we lived across the hall from each other, and now we’re on the same label." They’re also on each other’s albums, and they’ll share a release party at the Middle East on Friday September 13.
Listening to the two discs makes it clear what they have in common. There’s a general preference for up-front vocals, austere arrangements, and emotionally turbulent songs. Although there are loud guitars on both discs (especially Carmody’s), they take a back seat to the flow of moods and especially to the voices. Carmody has a classically crystalline pop voice, though she often uses it to express heavier sentiments. Elliott’s is almost the opposite — deep and sultry, more a cabaret voice than a conventional rock one.
"Yeah, I smoke way too much," Elliott says by way of explanation. Carmody ripostes, "But you’re lucky to have a deep voice; people take you more seriously that way. When I answer the phone, people still ask me if there’s any grown-ups there." "And when I answer the phone, they think it’s Mel," Elliott shoots back.
Dark beauty is the rule on The Good Night, which is notably different from Victory at Sea’s previous releases. Most of it was made while Victory were between drummers, so half the tracks have just Elliott with Lederman playing bass and keyboards (drummer Carl Eklof, who plays on the electric tracks, has since joined the band along with violinist Taro Hatanaka). And those settings prompted Elliott to write some of her deepest lyrics. The opening "Mary in June" is about watching her grandmother come down with Alzheimer’s disease; with the added violin and a neat chorus hook, it’s one of the more upbeat-sounding tunes on the disc.
When a happy lyric finally does turn up on "A Song for Brian," Elliott’s wry delivery makes you swear it must be ironic — but this one really is a happy song (about Slughog member Brian Wright, who beat back cancer after a long hospitalization and many local-rock benefits). But that leads into "The Bluebird of Happiness," one of the creepier things to appear on a local release this year. It’s a children’s song gone thoroughly wrong, complete with scratchy-record noises and muffled back-up chorus (Thalia Zedek, Kate McLaughlin, and Carmody). Elliott and Lederman learned it off a Sam Fuller movie that they rented one night. "It’s called The Naked Kiss, and it’s about a hooker who goes to work in a hospital for crippled children," Elliott explains. "There’s one scene where the children are singing this song, and it’s just horrible — it made me really uncomfortable, but I was so obsessed that I just kept watching it. We just did the part the children were singing; if we’d used the nurses’ responses, it would have been even worse."
Given the fairly high local profile she’s maintained over the past decade, you might be surprised to learn that Carmody’s album is the first thing she’s released (other than one track on Kimchee’s In My Living Room compilation) under her own name. "I think I was always a little nervous about the idea of going solo," she admits. "The first time I tried doing solo shows, it was too nerve-racking; I’d gotten so used to having a band behind me. But the good thing about going solo is that you can have total control."
As you might expect, Struts & Shocks has some of the Swirlies’ guitar layers and Syrup USA’s bubbly pop, but Carmody is more straightforward, with songs that are more obviously about relationships. And the prog-rock leanings of Syrup USA’s one album do turn up on one occasion. The closing "Stay Awake" ends with a long chorus fade that stretches the song to seven minutes; it’s hypnotic in a "Hey Jude" sort of way. "When Andy Hong heard it," Carmody points out, "he said, ‘It’s that long? Are you sure you want to be that much of an asshole?’ So I cut it a little, from eight minutes to seven. But I decided that, yeah, I did want to be an asshole.
"Something about sad songs is really attractive to me. I think I’m getting a lot better at writing lyrics, or at least more able to say what I’m trying to say." One of her favorite tricks is to use a wordless vocal part for emotional effect. She did that on a few Syrup USA numbers, and she does so again on the opening "Rocket out of Time." After a tense first verse, she throws in a "shoobee-doo-wah" chorus that lightens the mood. "That’s the ‘everything’s going to be all right’ part. The rest of the song is the ‘everything’s not going to be all right’ part."
And which mood wins out on the album? "Well, most of the songs are relationship songs. And I don’t want to sound too corny but" — she reaches for the right words — "but I want people to listen to this record and have a lot of sex to it."
Even though it’s only 33 minutes long? Elliott has the solution: "Just tell them to play it on repeat."