In the past, nobody would deny that the guys in A Fragile Tomorrow were going places. The three Kelly brothers (Sean, Dominic, and Brendan), along with bassist Shaun Rhodes, had a seemingly effortless ability to pump out jangly power-pop tunes loaded with hooks and sweetened with harmonies. They benefited from the combination of a tight-knit family bond and an early focus on making music a career, forming the group when they were all still in their teens and going on to get formal degrees in music production and music business.
Still, there was something a bit too patented in their pop-rock polish, as if their shrewd sense of sound and assured chops almost worked against them, lending a facsimile-like feel to even their best tunes.
This, in part, is what the group seeks to correct with Make Me Over, their new full-length and first effort for the NYC-based MPress Records. Self-produced and recorded at Low Watt Recording studio Savannah, as opposed to past efforts helmed by jangly pop legends Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, the band seems to be testing the limits of their sound for the first time, cranking the distortion and experimenting with noise and texture in an effort to break new ground.
"We went in [to the studio] with only three songs done, and as we were working on those, we were all getting an idea of what it was things were sounding like and what elements and instrumentation we wanted to incorporate and what the central focus was sonically," explains Sean, the primary songwriter and frontman of the group.
Part of that vision involved shirking, at least in part, their straight-forward personas. "We wanted to take songs which are essentially power-pop songs and make them a little edgier, rougher, or a little more fucked up. Very controlled-chaos," he notes. One method of doing that involved ample use of a Kaoss Pad, a touchpad MIDI controller and effects processor that has famously been used by the likes of Wilco and Radiohead.
"We kind of realized about midway through that it was a really good tool for making this kind of weird, spastic retro-futuristic thing," Sean admits. "That was our main source of noise, pretty much, along with guitar pedals and distortion and feedback and stuff. It's still a very musical record. There're a lot of little melody lines that pop up, a lot of subtle flourishes and nuances. The Kaoss Pad and that sort of thing was our way of going about that. Putting a 12-string [guitar] through it, or filter vocal arpeggios through plug-ins or use of a vocoder, that sort of thing, just to get that futuristic thing happening."
That sensibility colors pretty much every song on Make Me Over. The opener "Make Me Over" is built on a muscular guitar riff that's more glam than jangle, and even the most plaintive power-pop tunes, like the wistful mid-tempo ballad "Tell Me How to Feel," pairs the band's trademark chiming guitar lines and retro harmonies with lingering distortion and a hazy bed of noise slid low into the mix.
Although this instrumentation might make this record sound top-heavy, it's also worth noting that the group was careful not to abandon what worked for them in the past.
"We knew we had to strike a balance," Sean explains. "We could have made a noise-rock record, but we wanted to do what we do, too. It was a little daunting, but eventually we realized we needed to try everything and make everything sound as fucked up as possible, and then rein it in from there."
If the story of the record is half what this band can create when given the luxury of a studio they co-own, the other half is the band's gradually increasing profile. The group has had success touring as support for the likes of Matthew Sweet and the Bangles, and will celebrate the release of Make Me Over with another run of dates opening for the Indigo Girls. They've collaborated with all of these artists in the past, and a bonus track on the new record has them adding Joan Baez to that already-prestigious list.
The pairing is inspired by the '60s folk artist Richard Farina, who is a distant relative of the Kellys and a good friend of Baez's from the Greenwich Village folk scene. Farina would go on to marry Baez's sister Mimi.
Sean says they met with the legendary singer years ago very casually, but decided to reach out to her in the hopes of working on a cover of one of Farina's tunes. "She said yes right away, and we were seriously not expecting that," says Sean. "I don't think we'd even picked the song yet — or maybe we had picked it, but we hadn't tracked it. So we worked out the arrangement and figured out what we wanted to do."
They then booked a day in the studio for Baez to come in, and that was that. "It was just a regular day in the studio singing with Joan Baez," he recalls. "It was a little surreal."