Local independent label Dangerbird Records staged a Friday night party at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, last week, and there was one band on the bill that was definitely not like the others. When the Codeine Velvet Club took to the stage sometime after 11 p.m., there were no alt-rock-era distortion-ridden guitars and no oddball indie-pop structures. The band instead arrived like a full-on rhythm and blues revue, as if Dangerbird has just signed a more rock-driven version of the Commitments.
"What’s old fashioned to some is just regular and everyday and up to date to others," said Codeine Velvet Club leader Jon Lawler, better known to British pop fans as Jon Fratelli of the Fratellis. "We just try to throw in the kitchen sink, and hope that it works. I’ve been in bands since I was 16, and this was the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. For a while, I thought it was slightly sort of deceitful to the other band to say that, but the truth is the truth."
Retro-driven bands have been somewhat of an underground trend the past few years. Heading back to 2006, when the Pipettes modernized the girl group and Amy Winehouse, along with producer Mark Ronson, reclaimed a vintage British-soul production aesthetic, backward-looking acts have been in vogue. Here in Los Angeles, Fitz and the Tantrums have won KCRW support for their old-school R&B, and the Like have gradually embraced a '60s-influenced girl group sound themselves.
The Codeine Velvet Club take a spirited trip through record collections past. A self-titled album, released digitally earlier this month, opens with a James Bond-style overture on "Hollywood," gets vampy on "Vanity Kills" and then lets "Time" build with Mariachi-style horns, leading to a chorus that shifts between swing-worthy dance and classic rock guitar work. Lawler alternates vocal duties with Lou Hickey, who takes a jazzy, cabaret-ready approach to the songs.
"There have been records made in the past few years where, sonically, the person making the record has purposely tried to make it sound of an era, going to the extremes of only recording on old mics and processors," Lawler said. "We weren’t trying to do that. It was the ethos of the thing, rather than the technical side of it. We weren’t trying to make something that sounded old. We were using old ideas when it came to melody and structure, but we didn’t want it to sound old."