Wednesday, September 2, 2009

September 2: The Rondelles, "Fiction Romance, Fast Machines"

Artist: The Rondelles
Album: Fiction Romance, Fast Machines
Year: 1998
Label: Smells Like Records

While many bands began while the members were still in high school, there are very few than achieved much, if any success before graduation. Standing in opposition to this trend is a band that can forever brag that, before even out of high school, they opened shows for the likes of Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney. Playing an irresistibly catchy blend of surf and retro rock with a lo-fi approach, Albuquerque, New Mexico power-trio, The Rondelles, remain one of the best kept secrets of the last two decades. With clear, concise songs that find the ideal balance between the classic, simple moods of mid-60's rock and the more modern, edgier, indie-rock sound, The Rondelles music is truly unique and one of the most enjoyably original sounds of the 1990's. Using an almost spartan setup of guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, The Rondelles use every one of their songs to prove that "less is more," as they are not loud or musically intricate; they are simply amazing. After finishing high school and recording a few EP's, the band recorded their first full length album, 1998's Fiction Romance, Fast Machines, and it is absolutely one of the most original and sensational records to ever be released.

Having already released a pair of EP's on different labels, The Rondelles finally entered the studio to record a full length album for Smells Like Records, which is in fact owned by Sonic Youth drummer, Steve Shelley. Everything about Fiction Romance, Fast Machines has a retro feel to it, from the music to the album art to the lyrical themes, yet the album retains a modern feel and is nothing close any sort of "nostalgia" trip. The groups' furthers this idea, and aside from their more punk-based edge, there are few reasons why this group could not have fit in perfectly three decades earlier. Often times, with the bright keyboards and the mood behind the vocals, the group is strangely reminiscent of The B-52's, yet sound of The Rondelles is far more rooted in heavier rock and roll. The bands' songs are quick and concise, with all eleven tracks on Fiction Romance, Fast Machines clocking in at under three minutes. However, even though brief, every song is completely developed and many of them border on being anthemic. Even after one or two listenings, the songs are so perfectly crafted that they demand to be sung along with, and this in many ways is the true genius found within the music of The Rondelles.

Each of the three band members play absolutely perfectly throughout Fiction Romance, Fast Machines, and the manner in which they move as a single unit is one of the aspects that makes their music so fantastic. Guitarist Juliet Swango moves all over in the mix during the album, and her somewhat aggressive, yet consistently pop-based tone is truly perfect. From the hard, fast crushing chords of "Distraction" to the almost arena-rock style riffs on "Drag Striprace," Swango is a shining example of keeping things simple, yet showing an amazing amount of stylistic diversity. Bassist Yukkio Moynihan finds a way to make her slightly distorted, raw basslines groove and swing, and this is one of the most catchy aspects of the music. Pulling double duty, the final band member, Oakley Munson, plays both drums as well as the keyboards. Much like his bandmates, Munson proves just as skilled at playing more fast tempo songs, as well as creating wonderfully jerky patterns such as those found on "He's Outta Sight." One other interesting aspect about Munson is that during live shows, he was known to play his drums standing up, whilst simultaneously playing keyboards. The keyboards are one of the key elements to the amazing sound that the band creates. From more moody keyboard passages to irresistible riffs like the one found on, "Mission: Irresistible," it is this instrument that pushes the sound of The Rondelles to the next level.

Along with playing guitar, Juliet Swango also handles lead vocals throughout the album, and her voice is absolutely fantastic, as well as truly captivating. Sounding like a combination of Liz Phair and Elastica's Justine Frishmann, Swango's voice is young and spirited, yet would have also fit in perfectly with a group like The Shangri-Las. Overflowing with energy and attitude, Swango proves to be one of the most uniquely enjoyable singers of her era. The group vocals found throughout the songs represent yet another element where the group plays clear homage to the girl-groups of the mid-60's, as their harmonies are perfectly placed and performed. At their core, perhaps the most appealing aspect of the songs of The Rondelles is the fact that they are, for lack of a better term, fun. Much like the mood of the music, the lyrics have a very young, yet completely retro feel, with songs about geeks, drive-in's, and drag races. Again, the songs are nothing close to cliché, and though they are themes rarely present in modern music, the songs have a very contemporary feel throughout. The manner with which Juliet Swango sings is the perfect compliment to the bands' unique sound, and the lyrics that she sings finish off the brilliant modern-retro sound that the band presents throughout Fiction Romance, Fast Machines.

While they are a band that clearly takes a great deal of influence from groups like The Go-Go's, The Rondelles show the perfect way that an artist can take all of their influences and create an entirely new, yet familiar sound. Playing quick, direct songs with an instrumentation all their own, The Rondelles use Fiction Romance, Fast Machines to brilliantly blend together edgy indie rock with the moods and themes found within many of the mid-1960's girl groups. Finishing off their sound with an upbeat, yet high energy punk approach, their music is amazingly compelling and simultaneously undeniably catchy. The way in which Juliet Swango sings, both in terms of pitch as well as attitude, are almost mesmerizing, and every track on the album begs for the listener to sing along. With fantastic, yet unorthodox keyboard playing over a basic rock trio backing, the music of The Rondelles is equally as fantastic as the vocal performance, and after experiencing their sound, one is truly left to wonder how this band did not take over the world. Truth be told, there is not a dull or sub-par moment anywhere on any Rondelles recording, as their five EP's and three full length albums are all filled with equally fantastic songs. However, standing above the others is their 1998 debut, Fiction Romance, Fast Machines, and it remains one of the most magnificent albums ever recorded; albeit one that most people have never experienced.

Standout tracks: "Distraction," "Mission: Irresistable," and "Shanghai Surprise."

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