There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Sarah Dougher woke up one day a teenager and hated it. She had crafted herself as a budding Kerouac, worshipping the guy, until she realized he was the fuck-and-run type. So she turned to her Eugene, Ore., record stores for support. She was looking for some pretty specific vinylrecords with covers dressed like those of the Stones and the Beatles, but made by girls. She flipped through piles of yellowed album sleeves till her fingers numbed. No luck.
Across town, Corin Tucker woke up one day a teenager and fell in love with Aretha. She spent hours belting out “Respect” in her bedroom, not knowing exactly what it meant.
STS (she spells it “sts”) woke up one day a teenager and got a job at Hot Dog on a Stick at a mall in Thousand Oaks, Calif. A mall rat by day and a drummer by night, she tried tracking down other girls who had trap kits. After realizing that Janis and Grace Slick had been backed by all-male bands, she scoured the Top 40 charts looking for women and found nothing but Bangles and Go-Gostoo manufactured for her tastes. Six years later, she ended up in a Christian rock band that was all guys, except for one pregnant woman.
For the three women of Cadallaca, to be a teenage girl was to search and reinvent. To wake up at an age somewhere between Lolita and Monica, and unwrap a new body by night. To wake up and find that your parents had gotten you a subscription to Seventeen but that The Bell Jar was mandatory freshman reading. But you don’t have to read Sylvia Plath to discover that teen girldom is no fucking fun at all. These three girls wanted to be real girl rebels.
The best they could do was to try to pass for boys. Dougher remembers her Kerouac phase: “I could be a boy….I really wanted to be Jack,” she says. “But I realized my tragedyit was a historical experience that could only be available to young men.” Adjusting their cultural compasses, they rooted through thrift stores and their parents’ record collections. Finally, the three each found rebels they could respect in ’60s girl groupsfrom Martha Reeves to the Shangri-Las to rare all-female rockabilly outfitswho played songs mainly produced by men, but who could sing about stuff that boys could never touch.
Along the way, Tucker lit the match that would become the riot grrrl movement: She helped form grrrl meetings and provided its early soundtrack with Heavens to Betsy. She later found her voice in Sleater-Kinneyfusing her love of rock with personal politicking. Dougher and STS ended up in all-female bands, too. But they never forgot about those girl groups.
The three crossed paths in Portland, shared records, and, one night two years ago, did something most boys wouldn’t do: Hanging out in STS’ basement, they played dress-up. They put on sweater skirts and tight shirts and patted on loads of makeup. And, with a gross-out combo of cheap vodka, Sunny Delight, and one Farfisa organ ($50), they decided to start their own girl group. Instead of playing musical tomboys, the trio started writing songs for what would become Introducing Cadallaca.
That night, Dougher and Co. wrote “Firetrap.” Under an organ grind and a skitchy guitar, Tucker sings/whispers, “Within this girl a fire does burn/ Sparks fly, eyes flash and heads will turn/Careless words that were spoke with disrespect/Calling me names? I’m calling you back.” It’s the sound of 20-somethings waking up and reclaiming their teenhood.
Tucker has made a career of her bedroom: Her conversation is all about uncute journal entries, used guitars, records, and the importance of rock posters. Tucker likes to expose the secrets, worries, and aspirations of girls locked in their rooms. If Liz Phair plays dirty and Courtney Love plays celebrity witch, Tucker has always channeled your inner girl. Sometimes her teen characters get to be blissed out and cool; sometimes they sulk, and sometimes they dream. But it’s never the stuff of the Lifetime channel or the Babysitters Club.
On Sleater-Kinney’s “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” (1996), Tucker could have been singing for all the world’s bedroom rebels. The song was a bloodstream of raging hormones directed not at the boys, but at the girls in the audience. When her voice wailed, “I wanna be your Joey Ramone/Pictures of me on your bedroom door/Invite you back after the show/I’m the queen of rock ‘n’ roll,” any chick with a boombox could sympathize.
Cadallaca provides another way back to those teen years and rebel desires. The band, in revising old teen standards, is in good company these days. Lauryn Hill uses the teen-boy idol Jim Morrison for her own agenda, revamping the Doors’ “Light My Fire” as a rebuke to the current state of hiphop, and raids another vintage boy-form for her current single, “Doo Wop (That Thing).” Courtney Love conjures ’70s boy-toy Stevie Nicks all over Celebrity Skin. Cadallaca’s historical hooks are just as strong.
Unlike those recent revampers, Cadallaca members don’t simply strip past hits for melodies, licks, and samples. They use them as starting points, as inspiration, “to try to get some of the girl-group aesthetic, and to kind of answer to it, but not to copy it,” Dougher says. “To devise our own version of it.” Their version is devoid of camp or the retro-trash of the Cramps. They see girl groups not as heady fantasy, but as a starting point for women rockers.
Introducing Cadallaca was produced by K Records head Calvin Johnson, so the sound comes off as minimal and giddy as a sleep-over. As in most of Tucker’s work, the themes of romantic entanglement and female power remain intact. From the girl groups, the members have learned to play with identities, recasting themselves as Dusty (Dougher), Kissy (Tucker), and Junior (STS). They amp up the dramatics and harmonies; the songs may be spare, but Cadallaca laces the mix with a cappella breakdowns, complex group singing, and, in some cases, cheesy, eerie sound effects (“Night Vandals”).
As in their teen fantasies, they get to rebel and push over anyone in their path. Or, as Tucker sings, “Slip you a mickey and fleece you like a sheep,” on the anthemic “Night Vandals.” They recast the riot grrrl phenomenon as a World War II folk tale in the bombastic march “June-n-July,” revisit airport romance on the poignant “Pocket Games,” and slag drunk preppy sluts in “Two Beers Later”: “Our music doesn’t matter not a thing to you/What will go over, what do you think?/Money can’t buy you everything/Don’t condescend to me in starched white cuffs.”
Unfortunately, the women often sound more like fervent ghosts than old pop icons. None of the songs come close to the pop orchestrations of the Ronettes or the jilted love that the Supremes evoked in “Reflections.” Some of Introducing Cadallaca, indeed, is simply tiring. Choruses repeat over and over on “Firetrap” and “Your One Wish,” as if Dougher has run out of things to say. The instrumental “Cadallaca Theme” is like a surf ride to nowhere.
But Cadallaca does run away to new places, evoking teen disobedience while playing by girl-group rules. It’s homage without becoming an imitation. You can feel it with every tugged note on the closing ballad, “Winter Storm ’98.” The harmonies mingle and build to emotional desperation, and you start to think that maybe Martha Reeves would wish she had sung this in her bedroom, too. The way the chords whirl and mount with each line, it starts to sound like a wake-up call. This time, the three women woke up teenagers and formed a band.CP