It's been more than 2 years since the last time I saw Kittywinder (October 1, 1996 it says here in my show log, not that I've forgotten it); over a span of nearly two years before that (back to February 10, 1995) I'd seen them a baker's dozen times, and they'd become one of my favorite New York bands. When I found out two months after that last show that they were no more, it broke my heart.
I've kept in sporadic touch with Chris Lee and Stephanie Giorgio, the two guitar players (we have similar musical tastes and often turn up at the same shows), and I've waited patiently for them to go through the process of retooling and forming a new band.
A few months ago they gave me a copy of the demo tape for the new band -- which has gone through several names -- containing four new songs, all very good and unsurprising in the best possible way: that is, they sounded like the next Kittywinder album that never happened.
The core of Kittywinder's sound was always Chris and Stephanie's guitar parts, which had (still have) something of that Sleater-Kinney strategy of two different riffs played to the same rhythm, although Chris & Stephanie more often achieve genuine counterpoint: even, at times, a sense of both playing commenting riffs (obbligato, as it were) to a single basic guitar part that isn't there at all.
Their most salient influences are Scrawl and Throwing Muses, with a bit of Tsunami thrown in, i.e. female-led "indie" rock with sour-sweet vocals and buzzing dissonances from the guitar parts. Perhaps even a slight resemblance to the less pop-y songs on the Bangles' All Over the Place. If you make the distinction, I guess they're rock rather than pop, but that doesn't mean they'll never write a song with a pretty chorus and a hook.
So I got this postcard in the mail announcing a set by The Dog and Pony Show, whom I'd actually seen listed and wondered why it sounded a hair familiar, but I was still a bit mystified; I'm on a lot of bands' mailing lists at this point and it could have been any number of people. It wasn't until I looked at the fine print that I realized it was Chris & Stephanie's new band. That wasn't the name they had told me the last I'd heard from them.
It's one thing to wait for something you fear might never happen; it's another to wait for something you know is going to happen, and when, but it's not time yet; and still another, hardest of all, to wait for something that's going to happen any minute. I was impatient for the show for the whole week leading up to it, and in the interval before their set I was so antsy I couldn't stand still, but kept walking from the edge of the stage at the back of Mercury Lounge all the way through the crowded bar area to the front door, and back again. It wasn't until the band was actually setting up that I was able to settle in at my usual spot leaning on the stage monitors.
Then the band kicked into the first song, and two years went away in an instant.
"Red Light," also the first track on the demo, starts with a driving
eighth-note repeated groove (a little like "Get Back" only faster, or "Please
Please Me" only minor), over which Stephanie plays a little lick with a
prominent tritone and harmonic. The verse fractures into layered guitar-guitar-bass
arpeggios contradicting one another, under strident one-note vocals. The
next part is calmer, but builds itself through a transition passage to
a dramatic up&down riff under which the bass picks up the running eighths
to make the transition to the opening texture again (which ends the song).
Despite its several challenging parts
and sections and sudden shifts, the whole band hit every mark on the dime. A very exhilarating start.
Next was "Alps," a new song which was even a little darker and more dissonant, with really interesting arpeggios from Stephanie. One of the first things I ever wrote about her was something to the effect that her pick hand was defter than her fretting hand; that hasn't been true for a long time. It was one of the pleasures of watching Kittywinder over an extended period to see her guitar playing get better and better. And she's taken another big jump since last I saw her play: her guitar parts have gotten quite complicated, the part-chords she's picking moving all around the fretboard. Her arpeggios were killing me the whole set, in "Alps" as much as in any of the songs.
Chris as usual was the solid complement, her style being a more usual chords/riffs/lead lines that anchored the middle of the sound. I was sorry that she had chosen not to sing second vocals (something she did more often than not in Kittywinder -- in fact she had some lead vocals) leaving that to the keyboard player.
The bass player in the band is Stuart Hill, who also plays with Shudder to Think (whose busy schedule impacts The Dog and Pony Show); he's an excellent, very striking player whose lines occasionally become appropriately prominent.
The drummer reportedly played with the fine band Idaho at one time, but not on their CDs I have. I confess I hardly noticed him the whole set; but I often pay little attention to drummers, and like a sports official he should take it as a compliment. The keyboardist is a fellow music student of Stephanie's at Columbia; and when I could hear him (he and Chris on that side of the stage were at times nearly inaudible) his contributions were quite good.
"Good Dress" is another song from the demo tape; it has a stiff, staccato rhythm (with a kind of circus-y piano line). The other parts of the song are a little smoother but more grinding. The vamping bridge is based on an ominous solo line of Chris's everyone else drops out for then joins; she takes a fine whining solo over the coda based on the chorus.
"Seeking Home" (also a demo song) starts quietly, with pattering percussion, simple alternating chords, and understated vocal; it gives way to a keening harmony hook (which the keyboard player didn't stay with as much as he should; it's the harmony that makes the hook so strong). The bridge begins with a driving riff, then develops the hook into a building vocal passage that releases back into the hook itself for a few repetitions (nagging eighths underneath from Stephanie) to the end.
There was one gesture made to their past: they did the Kittywinder song "Monopoly Girl." Why that one is a mystery; it wouldn't have been among the first ten I would have guessed. It's an OK song, with a nice slide guitar part from Chris, but I find it a little sluggish, and since the course of the song is strongly tied to the vocal melody (which was hard to hear at that point), it was the song that came off least well. They could do better with their nostalgia.
The other demo song is "Bureau," my favorite of the four. It's an absolutely lovely song, with a quietly insistent syncopated part from Stephanie against a nice little Chris arpeggio; the vocal is quiet but yearning. And to top it off the rhythm is uneven: in the verses it's six measures of three plus one of four (22/4?), while in the chorus it's two 3s and one 4 (10/4), over an archetypal F-G-Am (or transposition) chord sequence. (The overall effect is similar to the harmonics-graced Kittywinder song "Secret," which is in 11/4 throughout.)
Most rock&roll songs make me tense up, hold my breath, hyperventilate; "Bureau" is of another sort, that make me relax, take a long, deep breath instead. The effect is increased in the last verse, where the keyboard adds a really sweet little obbligato line which tops off the song just so. The bridge is a call&response holding action over spare guitar; but it's only a matter of time before the chorus, even louder and more releasing than before, comes back and closes out the song.
(The set's only mishap was at the end of "Bureau," where Stephanie broke and dropped her pick, and finished her little piercing two-note solo on her knees after scrambling for it.)
Two new songs finished the set; the first has no title (it was just
noted "New" on the setlist), and didn't do much for me; its harmony was
a little blander and its rhythm more regular than the rest of the songs.
Maybe next time. The finale "Cicada" started with a striking high-pitched
lick from Stephanie and moved through a considerable number of sections
(another one to make more sense of on future listens), many of which were
in 7. And it delighted me that the long coda was in 13 (alternating
4-3-4-2; not unlike Babe the blue OX's "Tatoos" with its 4-3-4-3-3-2).
As I'd been watching the set list (bad habit), I knew when the show was coming to an end, so it wasn't surprisingly short for me; but they only did eight songs, and I suspect it lasted closer to 30 than 40 minutes. It's plausible those were all the songs they have so far.
Given that two of these were players I knew well, and the rest of the band are also strong musicians, I expected them to play well; and it didn't occur to me until other people were commenting afterwards that this was after all the first show by a new band. And as a first show, it was a considerable artistic success. They sounded like a band, not a group of musicians, and the dead-on quality I noted in the first song continued throughout the whole set. Even first-rate musicians don't always manage that.
It was a great pleasure to see the return of two favorite musicians, and well worth waiting the two years to see.
[7/99 I’ve had the opportunity to see them play on a few more occasions in the months since their first gig, and they’ve settled in nicely as a working band; a new song every set or so, phasing out the Kittywinder song, etc. Their demo tape has also been released as a CD EP.]