Who in their right mind wouldn't want to be at the top of Walkie Talkie's shit list? "Carrie Rogers," the impossibly catchy revenge song opening this blossoming Memphis band's excellent debut CD, Residential Llama, is a cruel, beautifully detailed portrait of a corpulent sourpuss who snacks on low-carb sausage, projects her self-loathing onto others, and keeps vintage pictures on the wall in lasting memory of her faded glory and once-slender profile. It's presented as a pop lullaby: homage to the people who make our lives hell and keep our conversations interesting.
"Yes, it's about a real person," says Kate Crowder, the elementary-school teacher who doubles as Walkie Talkie's keyboard player and vocalist. "Her real name rhymed perfectly with 'pig trotters,'" Crowder adds regretfully, recalling a last-minute decision to settle for the assonant "Rogers" instead of inviting trouble by naming her actual nemesis in song. Still, with its soft backing vocals reminiscent of the Beach Boys, lush string sections, and infectious melody, "Carrie Rogers" may be the most flattering insult in the long, illustrious history of character assassination. Besides, the singalong chorus -- "Dance, and dance, and dance, and eat a little bit more" -- is nothing if not sound, constructive advice for broad-beamers everywhere.
With its balanced blend of sunny pop and not-so-sunny content, Residential Llama is reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's Loaded but lighter. It's laden with musical motifs that evoke vivid images of merry-go-rounds, music boxes, and cotton candy gone rancid. It variously calls to mind the Lascivious Biddies but with teeth, the Dresden Dolls without the over-the-top drama, or Os Mutantes minus the cuicas and bilingual vocals. It's a clever collection of cosmic lounge music, augmented with a dollop of xylophone and garnished with the occasional singing saw.
"It's a break from all the noise," says Walkie Talkie's drummer Joey Pegram, referencing Memphis' never-ending obsession with grinding guitar rock.
Walkie Talkie grew out of the jam sessions that took place regularly at the Crowder household. Kate's artist husband Corey would play guitar with his archaeologist pal Andrew McColgan. Pegram often joined in on drums.
"It was all emo, or screamo, or something," Kate says somewhat derisively of her husband's "band practice." She'd been trying to insinuate herself into a band, but because of her musical-theater background, no self-respecting rocker would take her seriously.
"I'd show people my 'show tunes,' and I'm sure they were thinking there's no way we can make these songs rock."
Kate eventually started singing with the boys, and over the period of a year's practice, their sound changed dramatically. Corey emerged as the group's principal songwriter, but everybody contributed to a set list containing lighthearted songs about extinction, novas, bossa novas, and obnoxious Jodie Foster fans. Three months before Walkie Talkie's first gig, Kate, uncomfortable in the role of instrument-free frontwoman, went to the library, checked out some books, and taught herself to play piano. The group's unusual sound would solidify with the addition of law student Joe McClusky on bass.
"Joe was really our biggest fan," Kate says, explaining that Walkie Talkie's early shows might have been empty if McClusky hadn't encouraged all his friends to come out to see the band.
"We had a hard time getting gigs at first," Corey says. Memphis' garage rockers weren't into Walkie Talkie's sound, and it was difficult to find other bands to play with.
"Of course, the only way to win the cool contest is not to care," Kate adds.
"But once we started working with Makeshift [Records] and recording at Unclaimed Recordings, people started to pay attention," Pegram says. "Now the younger crowd really likes us a lot."
"I've had some younger [musicians] come up to me and say, 'I'm going to start a new band, and I want them to sound like you guys,'" Kate says.
Even the members of Walkie Talkie have a difficult time describing their inspiring sounds: Rock's too hard, and pop, according to Kate, "makes people think of Kelly Clarkson." They do, however, know where the sound comes from.
"It's all of us," Corey says.
"We probably have more discipline than most bands," Kate says. "Everybody comes to practice. We have regular songwriting sessions, and everybody contributes."
"'Succinct Extinction' started out as a song about George W. Bush," Corey says, explaining how completely Walkie Talkie's songs can evolve from start to finish. The irresistibly sweet version of "Succinct Extinction" on Residential Llama is all about dodo birds and saber-toothed tigers that fall in love, make babies, and die out.
"It's about overpopulation," Corey says. "I guess we didn't really want to be that political."