Last winter -- the winter that seemed it might never end -- Mariage Blanc set out make its second record, a self-titled LP. It might have been a good time to hunker down in a cozy recording space, but the band's home base, a practice space and studio in the furthest reaches of Upper Lawrenceville, isn't exactly cozy.
The studio's main source of warmth is a propane heater, the kind probably better suited to outdoor use. In the deep of winter, when drummer Chris Williams began laying down the tracks that would be the backbone of the record, water left standing in the space overnight would freeze.
"It's hard to play drums when you're that cold -- plus I had layers of clothes on," Williams recalls. So when he finished committing the drum parts to the analog tape that the band insisted on using, it was a relief.
Until the tape started falling apart.
"The tapes were old tape stock, and I was playing them back," explains singer, guitarist and main engineer Josh Kretzmer. "I noticed a bunch of shed all over the machine. Imagine playing back hard work and seeing these flecks of metal falling off ..."
"Flakes of music, really," adds keyboard player Sam McUmber.
Those disintegrating tapes illustrate the kind of syndrome that plagued the band's entire recording process: Once those tapes were saved, the band scrapped them anyway because it didn't like the snare sound. Strings and winds were recorded, then tossed as the band realized it wanted to keep its recorded sound stripped down to the core instruments -- guitar, bass, and various shades of organ and drums.
Blizzard, mechanical malfunction, finicky tastes -- all of these factors pushed the release back months from original projections. But the self-titled LP, a follow-up to the 2008 EP Broken Record, served as the project around which the band coalesced. Where the first EP was largely songs written by either Kretzmer or guitarist Matt Ceraso, with the rest of the band adding parts, the musicians wrote and recorded the new LP as a more holistic group effort.
"Everything was very systematic and disciplined," explains McUmber, who plays professionally for theater companies and the like. "When [Kretzmer and Ceraso] did their guitars, they spent a week or so where they went through every song and wrote down the exact settings they wanted to use" to achieve the right tone.
The new record was also the impetus for building the band's studio, in the space that it had begun renting in the spring of 2009. With help from friends, the group turned a rather forbidding, uninsulated room into something that looks passable and sounds impeccable.
The band's space is strewn with organs and odd little additions like homemade sound diffusers (wooden contraptions that look like witchcraft to the untrained eye), indicating that, while it's not a professional space in the strictest sense, this isn't a poor man's recording nook. And the new LP, with its months of re-recording and mixing, sounds more professional than something recorded in a space where the only thing separating the control room and tracking room is a thin wall and a door with a hole where the knob should be.
The studio isn't the only aspect of the band's game that's been kicked up some. Mariage Blanc's first EP was a series of pop tunes with vocals that recalled Elliot Smith and a head-bobbing beat reminiscent of Beulah. The LP, while retaining the general sound of the first, is more complex. One standout track, "Trances," shows shades of Aloha and of old-time AM gold -- a vocal flourish in the verse is a dead ringer for one in Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)."
When the band branches out like this -- when Josh Dotson's bass lines move subtly and the guitar shimmers that Kretzmer and Ceraso create aren't just staccato hits on the downbeat -- Mariage Blanc creates worthwhile additions to the pop-music landscape. They're five good musicians and producers, but the album's real payoffs are those moments that show they're also innovative songwriters.
Mariage Blanc CD release with New Shouts, DJ Jordan K. 10 p.m. Fri., Oct. 8 (doors at 9:30 p.m.). Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $8. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net
- Photo: Heather Mull // Stylist: Michelle Pascis
- Tape heads: From left, Mariage Blanc's Josh Dotson, Chris Williams, Sam McUmber, Josh Kretzmer and Matt Ceraso