I'm beginning to think I've been successfully terrorized. I'm not sure who's responsible?Osama bin Laden's boys or a news media that seems intent on driving us all into a panic?but I've been in a funk for the past two months. My wife and I were very lucky on Sept. 11?none of our friends or family were lost. But we've been bickering ever since. There's a constant background hum about when the next attack will occur and it's introduced a baffled irritation to our relationship. The other day we had a screaming fight about where to store my bike: she wanted to lock it in the hall, which I thought was ridiculous; I wanted to mount it on the wall of our kitchen, which she thought was insane.
In the scheme of things, none of this is important, but it's left me more melancholy than I've been in years. I find myself turning to pop music for comfort, and pop music has been there for me in the form of Brooklyn band Champale and their debut Simple Days (Pitch-A-Tent). There's my current emotional state articulated with yearning clarity by Mark Rozzo on the very first track: "Never thought it could be so hard/to be easy," he sings, the last word stretched out in a sigh of loneliness and uncertainty.
As I listen, I keep hearing lines that sum up my sadness and growing paranoia: "Now just relax/and this won't hurt at all/You're so uptight, just like everyone" ("Hard To Be Easy"); "Maybe simple days are come and gone" ("'68 Comeback"); "Maybe in Paducah/is where we will be free" ("Paducah"). Normally I hate reading into songs this way, but at the moment Champale's loss and vulnerability ring truer than any saccharine rendition of "God Bless America" or "The Star Spangled Banner." I don't know who declared that our grief and fear should be assuaged by overblown patriotism, but he wasn't speaking for me. Champale's music takes no refuge in feelings of group security. In the world of Simple Days, connecting with one person is treacherous enough.
This glum view of human relations is hidden in some of the sunniest music imaginable, a lush blend of country, jazz and whiteboy soul. The band sounds like it belongs in the mid-70s, when romantic pop ruled FM radio and songs like "Sentimental Lady" (a frequent live cover) had the kids weeping into the dashboards of their Camaros.
"As mellow as Champale is, I think the music comes out of a not-so-mellow place," says Rozzo, who writes the band's songs and whose first band, 44, was one of hundreds of indie bands courted, then screwed, by a major label. In early 1998, he started demoing songs with a small group, including drummer Lee Wall (who had been in 44 and now plays with Luna), bassist David Voigt and current Champale trumpeter David Knowles. By the beginning of 1999, the band had somehow grown to seven pieces, including cellist Jason Glasser, vibraphonist Erin Elstner and saxophonist Andrew Innes.
Rozzo doesn't take credit for the more elaborate lineup, though he admits he was heading in that direction. "As a songwriter, I was always curious to see what it would be like to arrange strings and horns and have to cope with all the chaos that it introduces. A lot of the music that I found myself returning to was stuff that came out of Memphis, like late Elvis and the Box Tops, who are my favorite band in the world. I wanted something that was more like a classic studio house band, rather than the four guys with guitars trying to be the Beatles."
Despite the kitsch of Champale's name, they seem relatively untouched by indie-rock irony. The first time I saw the band, I assumed its members were starry-eyed and naive, hoping to make a splash in the business. Talk about projection. It turns out they're all old pros, one a conservatory-trained percussionist who's toured with the Pizzicato Five, others members of Clem Snide and Nada Surf. With all seven members bringing in their own influences, the music remains unpredictable. "See You Around," one of the band's catchiest tunes, begins like something off of Big Star's Radio City but ends in an atmospheric jazz breakdown. Live, this coda is even more drawn out, with Elstner on vibes and Glasser on cello creating moody acoustic psychedelia in a sort of Milt Jackson meets John Cale back-and-forth.
"We constantly need to rein things in," says Rozzo, "because if we don't it just gets incredibly chaotic and weird. The challenge in terms of writing and arranging is to keep it pared down. My songwriting has probably become more agonized, because I'm thinking about it all the time, wondering what people's parts are going to be. Fortunately, I feel that everybody in Champale is a pretty sturdy character. We're all used to telling each other not to play. It's our favorite saying: 'I think you should lay out here for a while, dude.'"
When asked if there are plans to draft even more members, Rozzo laughs. "That would be intense. What, like 12 pieces? Fifteen? Maybe some gospel singers. The Sweet Inspirations. Or go down to Nashville and get someone like J.D. Sumner and the Stamps."
Maybe that's the reason Champale appeals to me these days: they seem willing to throw themselves into a complicated situation and somehow make it work. But if the band embodies anything, it's the kind of outlook that's already having trouble holding up under the threat of terrorism: the freedom to be weak, the wisdom of empathy and the appeal of modesty.
Those have never been qualities that spell pop chart success, either, but Rozzo seems undeterred. "We want to put out another album by next spring, and an EP before then, which we've already started to tinker with. I'm also trying to get a side project going with our labelmate Steve Koester. It's called Maplewood, and will be early 70s California mellow rock, a la America or Poco. That'll probably get a lot of people angry." I, for one, will be completely delighted.