Surf's Not Up
For the men and women of the Ladybug Transistor, discussion of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is strictly taboo.
"These days, we refer to it as 'the P word,'" jokes guitarist Jeff Baron. "It seems to follow us wherever we go."
Vocalist/trumpeter Gary Olson concurs. "It's kind of funny. For a long time, nobody used to care one way or the other about that record. Now, without fail, whenever a journalist reviews something or talks about something, they bring it up. The other day I was reading a review of the new P.M. Dawn in Rolling Stone, and it even mentioned Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson. Somehow that just seems like kind of a stretch to me."
Olson would know. After all, he, Baron and the rest of the Brooklyn-based Transistor collective (bassist Jennifer Baron, pianist/flutist Sasha Bell and drummer Sam Fadyl) have endured more comparisons to the Beach Boys circa 1966 than they'd care to admit--and such references aren't entirely without merit. Indeed, the effervescent harmonies, rich string arrangements and symphonic instrumentation found on Albemarle Sound, the combo's new release on Merge Records, inevitably recall Wilson in his madcap prime. Yet look beyond these cosmetic similarities and you'll discover an unflappable pop vibe that is all Ladybug: bouncy, bucolic, and wise beyond its years.
Baron and Olson admit that at least part of Ladybug's sophisticated sound can be ascribed to its vast pool of influences, which range from the Bee Gees and Lee Hazelwood to Jan and Dean (Dean Merrill's "Like a Summer Rain" is the only cover on the LP). But they insist that the Transistor's home/studio, Marlborough Farms, acts as the group's primary source of inspiration. Sparkling Albemarle highlights such as "Oriental Boulevard," "Meadowport Arch" and "Oceans in the Hall" can be traced directly back to Marlborough and neighboring Beverley Square, which Olson fondly describes as "unusual. It's definitely not what people think of when they think of stereotypical Brooklyn living. There are a lot of birds and trees and grass here. It's much greener than you'd expect."
"It's also in this great location," Baron chimes in. "You can reach just about everything from here. Like, I just got back from riding my bike to Coney Island beach, and the center of Manhattan is only twenty minutes from here. Or if you head in another direction, you can hang out on the harbor and watch the fishing boats.
"It's kind of ironic, in a way," he goes on. "People always use terms like 'pastoral' and 'rural' to describe our music. But we actually live in the middle of New York City."
Marlborough Farms can feel crowded at times: Because all of the Ladybugs live there, practice and recording sessions have to fit in between work schedules, dates and favorite TV programs. Although Olson describes the situation as eerily "Monkee-esque," he feels that the communal environment has gone a long way toward helping the band find its focus. "I don't think we'll all be here forever," he says. "But for what we're doing right now, it's great. It helps a lot with our creativity, having a studio downstairs and having everyone around if we want to get something done."
"I hope we can get at least one more record out of this situation," Baron notes. "I don't know if we can all hold out for much longer. But if we could do this for another year and we could put out another record while we're still living together, I think it could be really special. It made a big difference during the recording of Albemarle. If you weren't recording, you were supporting the person who was or drinking tea upstairs waiting for your turn. It was fun."
For Olson, having regular helpers was a new experience. The first two albums issued under the Ladybug Transistor name--Marlborough Farms and Beverley Atonale--were more or less Olson solo projects in which the singer would collaborate with friends like Baron and Bell, who were in the indie foursome Guppy Boy, as well as Baron's sister Jennifer, a onetime member of the atmospheric act Saturnine. Atonale alone took more than two years to complete, resulting in a record that Olson characterizes as "a little bit all over the place. Some of the things on it had been around for a while before they came out. At the time, we weren't even sure if any of it was going to be on an album or not. We just put a bunch of songs together and sent them to Merge, and to our surprise, they said they wanted to put it out."
All the while, the core contributors to Atonale continued to play together and share ideas. This led to Ladybug's current incarnation, which formally fell into place earlier this year with the permanent addition of drummer Fadyl. Still, the group continues to incorporate other players, including violinists, cellists and additional trumpeters and saxophonists. The five-piece is currently in the process of beefing up its ranks for the remaining leg of a U.S. tour. "We're faxing sheet music all over America," says Olson, laughing. "We're trying to allocate as many orchestra musicians as we can wherever we go. We read somewhere that whenever Glen Campbell would go to a town to perform, he'd hire the local symphony orchestra, so we're sort of doing the same thing. But we really only need a couple of people." He adds, "Maybe at the end of this article, you can include a footnote that says something like, 'For anyone reading this who plays violin or cello, please contact us and we'll fax you sheet music.'"
Just don't mention Pet Sounds.
Of Montreal, with the Ladybug Transistor and the Apples. 9 p.m. Saturday, May 8, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $8, 303-572-0822.
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