THE NOISE * MARCH 1999
BOY WONDER ONE FOR THE BOYS
by Lexi Kahn
"I wanted beauty but my face just wasn't sweet enough/ I tried to fake it but my lies were not discreet enough/ So I sit here for hours and my heart so wrongfully will/ But who's the last one of my kind to break that spell."
Paula Kelley's distinctive high-pitched voice soars through the early evening air at T.T. the Bear's Place. The words, in harmony with background vocals from bandmates Josh Arakelian and Aaron Tap, ring out clear as a bell in the chilly club. When they finish the song, drummer Bruce Caporal reports that he can hear everything fine, but all three singers ask for more vocals in the monitors. After a bit more playing around with the levels, the foursome launch into another song as T.T.'s employees and members of other bands begin to filter into the club and go about their respective duties. With more important things to think about, the band is barely distracted by the growing assemblage or the cold. They're focused. Tonight, they want to get it exactly right.
It's soundcheck, and in just a few more hours the place will be pack with enthusiastic friends and fans, celebrating the release of Boy Wonder's newest CD, a follow-up to last year's full length debut Wonder-Wear. The new EP, Break the Spell, Etc., marks a milestone in the Boy Wonder timeline. It's the second official release and the first recording Kelley and co-founder Bruce Caporal have made with the two newest members.
This incarnation of Boy Wonder has been in place since July of 1998, when bass player Paul Natale left to form the Den Mothers, Josh switched to bass, and Aaron (Betty Goo) took over guitar. The latest lineup change was taken in stride by Paula, who's been through her share of lineup changes since forming Boy Wonder in 1995.
"Each change of the band has been beneficial for the sound. I would hate to regress," explains Paula. "Josh is one of the best musicians I've ever met. It's not just that he can play every instrument, but he's adroit at every instrument, which is kinda scary. He's got a great sense of melody. And Aaron can sing anything."
Josh agrees, "It actually works out better for me because I was playing guitar at that time, and I'm a much better bass player."
The lineup change may have helped round out the Boy Wonder "sound," which is pure pop, but the source of the sound is rooted in Paula's songwriting and arranging, and goes back much further than Boy Wonder.
Paula grew up loving The Bee Gees, The Beach Boys, Phil Specter, and Elvis Costello, and eventually grew into being able to admit her love for pop. Though she has always loved performing, even if it was just dancing around to Casey Kasem's Top 40 with her girlfriends, there was a time when she was afraid to show her true colors.
You can hear Paula's voice and guitar on the Drop Nineteens Delaware CD (Caroline Records), one of 1992's most well-received indie rock releases and now available in a used-music bin near you. (I got mine last year at In Your Ear in Harvard Square.) Though Drop Nineteens enjoyed terrific success, especially in Europe where bands like My Bloody Valentine, Blur, and Lush were big, the sound was worlds away from the kind of music that Paula wanted to make. Gloomy, distortion-laden, with hazy melodies and zoom effects, Drop Nineteens defined alternative "shoegazer" pop. Moments of greatness on Delaware demonstrated that Paula had something more to contribute. For example, "Kick the Tragedy" contains a brilliant monologue by Paula in the style of The Orb's "Fluffy Little Clouds."
By 1993, Paula left Drop Nineteens and formed Hot Rod with Eric Paull, Mat Flint, and John Dragonetti (Jack Drag). The band recorded a 10-song CD called Speed Danger Death at Fort Apache in Cambridge, with some help on the production side by Tim O'Heir. The songs on Speed Danger Death show Paula's flowering songwriting style, a blend of frank, candid lyrics with captivating arranging. Though the songs don't yet contain the depth and smartness of her later material, Hot Rod shows Paula Kelley giving herself permission to love pop, and discovering that song itself is the most crucial ingredient.
"I like my songs to be about something," Paula says. "I'll go through spurts and write a bunch of songs in twenty minutes. And then sometimes I wish I could write something more lyrically clever, word play -- and I've achieved that, but I feel kind of phony when I do that. Like I'm sacrificing some sort of meaning for a clever line."
Speed Danger Death's "Soaking" and "Perplexed" testify to Paula's longtime Beatles influence with their dreamy "Lucy in the Sky" melody and engaging finger-picking. Still, the entire CD belies an underlying timidity, and "Soaking" contains a very Drop Nineteens voicebox-altered wailing bridge. Both songs dissolve into a chord-dominated wall of sound that's all but gone from Paula's writing by the time Boy Wonder takes shape. "Waiting Forever," a sweetly sung and sprightly torch song with a bitter edge, is as close as Hot Rod comes to the present Boy Wonder sound.
Paula Kelley had found her niche.
Wonder-Wear was released on Boston's CherryDisc label, original home of Letters to Cleo and Tree. It was recorded in three weeks at Fort Apache, and again featured the production talents of Tim O'Heir. When Wonder-Wear hit the streets in September 1997, Paula and Bruce, and then-members Jake Zavracky and Paul Natale, set about proving that indie pop is not only alive and well in the post-grunge, mid-industrial 1990s, but it is okay to mix it up with vintage-sixties accents, jolts of surf melody, and Motown girl-band choruses. "Mission to Destroy" and "Walking Disaster" are charged with a new maturity, and show Paula more sure of herself, if more bitter.
These days, Paula has found a worthy collaborator in Aaron Tap, whose band Betty Goo has been playing infectious pop/punk for Boston crowds since 1995. Their first collaboration, "X-Large," is on the new EP, which Boy Wonder is releasing on Aaron's indie label, Jackass Records (Betty Goo, Sticky Hippos). Aaron's songwriting has always been ahead of the curve, and he has the kudos to prove it, including the first prize in the 1998 USA Songwriting Contest, Rock/Alternative category. Both Aaron and Josh understand the fundamentals of a good song, and build on Paula's work. The new dynamic seems to carry the potential for brilliance.
"Paula can quite easily write an entire song, and it's great," Aaron says. ""I've been a fan of her songs for a year before I joined the band, so I just feel fortunate to be part of that."
"Nothing's ever set in stone," Paula admits. "When I bring a song to the band, I'll have it completed, guitar and vocals. Sometimes I'll have backing vocals in mind. I don't usually have bass parts and drum parts. I have done that in the past, but I don't need to now because Bruce and Josh will do better than what I can come up with."
The new EP contains five songs, including, naturally, "Break the Spell," which is also on Twisted Rico's TRHS Class of 98 collection released last September. The band is thrilled with the new sound, and the new CD. "A couple of songs on Wonder-Wear, the ones I was the happiest with, gave me direction for the new batch of songs. 'Make Me' and 'Softie' were my favorites on Wonder-Wear and they pointed me toward 'Break the Spell' and 'Over Your Head.'"
Break the Spell, Etc's most notable departure from Wonder-Wear is the vocal harmonies and arrangements. Paula and Josh, having been similarly influences by The Beach Boys and The Beatles brand of harmonizing, have always wanted to take Boy Wonder to a new, more harmony-rich direction.
"We never really achieved that vocal sound in the old lineup," Paula explains. "Jake and Paul were very good singers, but both lead singers, so it didn't really cater towards vocal blends. With these guys, all of our voices blend, and we all want to do it. It's the nature of our styles."
"It's nice to find people who want to do nice, really cool -- sometimes difficult -- vocal harmonies, and do layer upon layer of it, and enjoy it," says Josh. "I like to sing, and we're getting a lot better."
"I didn't think there was a world of difference between two and three part, but there really is," explains Aaron. "There's so many different things you can do. There's a lot more going on. You can have the lead vocal doing one thing and two people doing something else and it sounds cool...whereas if you had the lead person doing one thing and one person doing something else, it's like, 'oh, they fucked up.'"
Boy Wonder has grown, and is taking a chance on a new direction.
Every song on the new EP makes good on Boy Wonder's promise of more vocal harmony. They even threw in the first-ever recorded cover, a classic rendition of The Turtles' "Elenore." The band surprised themselves the first time they played "Elenore" together in rehearsal, reporting that they achieved pitch-perfect harmony on the fly. "It was a Mamas & Papas moment," Aaron says. "We just grabbed the guitar and went 'Ahhhhh.'"
With confidence and a refreshed attitude, the new Boy Wonder boldly takes the stage for their CD release show. As expected, T.T. the Bear's Place is filled to capacity and charged with a party-like atmosphere. The other bands on the bill, including The Pills and Permafrost, have rocked the house as expected. Balloons are sailing around the room and flashbulbs are popping. Dazzling in glitter, sequins, and feathers, Boy Wonder launches into a cover song that's not even on the new CD -- something unheard of for a CD release show. But this time it's fitting. The band delivers a heartfelt, non-ironic rendition of John Lennon's "Starting Over."