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Maximum R&B: Dangerbird gets retro with the Codeine Velvet Club

March 25, 2010 |  6:49 pm


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."

The Fratellis released two albums before taking what Lawler describes as a "break." He met Hickey after being asked to help write songs for her solo album, and the Codeine Velvet Club soon started to take shape -- a side project that's been gradually becoming more of a full-time gig. 

"I’m getting to play all the styles that I want to play in one show," Lawler said. "I’ve never had that before. I really get to sort of play everything. Even in a short set, we are taking in every single piece of what excites us, and what excited us to play music in the first place."

Signed to Island in Britain, the Codeine Velvet Club hooked up with Dangerbird via Fratellis producer Tony Hoffer, who's repped by the label/management firm. Lawler said he met with Universal Music Group about releasing the Codeine Velvet Club's album in the states, but Dangerbird expressed more of an interest.

"They had to say no first," Lawler said of UMG, which inked the Fratellis. "I just know that one side wanted to do it more than the other." 

While much of the album was constructed by Lawler and Hickey, a full band was put together for the live shows (the Codeine Velvet Club will open for Metric on March 26 in Los Angeles). The two members wrote separately, trading lyrics and melodies -- "I’m not sure how people sit in a room together and write songs," Lawler said -- and then drafted Mick Cook (Belle & Sebastian) to add full-on orchestral arrangements to the songs. 

"I had never sung anybody else’s lyrics before," Lawler said. "The songs Lou would send lyrics for, I never even thought for a moment, ‘I can’t sing that.’ It just made sense. That doesn’t happen very often. It certainly hasn’t happened to me before. It would be a shame if that process was just one album long."

Such statements may not bode well for those hoping for Lawler to return to the Fratellis, which never achieved the same sort of success in the U.S. that the band did overseas. When pressed on the band's future, Lawler gave a vague answer.

"We decided to take time off, but I don’t have time to take time off," Lawler said. "Life isn’t getting slower. There’s no time to take time off, so I’ve been doing this. Whatever name you put on the music at the time, whether it’s Codeine Velvet Club or Fratellis, it doesn’t make any difference to me. It’s just what you’re doing at that time. I’m going to keep doing this until the phone stops ringing. Hopefully the phone keeps ringing."

-- Todd Martens

Metric with the Codeine Velvet Club, Friday at the Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd. Tickets are still available, and are $30.50, not including surcharges. 

Photo credit: Dangerbird Records