No purer pop than this
Baby Grand plays top-down, summery radio tunes that get under your skin
No phonograph’s tone arm drops to signal the beginning of Spectrum, the full-length debut of Baby Grand. But the unabashed pop music that comes blasting out of the speakers is mixed “hot,” with the kind of knobs-up, needle-in-the-red immediacy that made hit singles jump out of car radios back in the 1960s—think the unforgettable productions of Brian Wilson, or Phil Spector.
A shimmering guitar arpeggio cascades over Gerri Ranta’s multi-tracked wordless “aahs” to open “Lost,” which kicks off the CD. Then she sings. “The drive takes so long / I start to write a song / I sing with the windows down … ” She’s on her way to the beach, she gets as far as, well, Davis, but it doesn’t matter; place is as much a state of mind as it is a physical reality, and she just needs to find enough space to sort out how she’s changed—and how those changes will affect the person the song’s lyrics are directed toward. Musically, it soars, but beneath the song’s candy-apple red surface flows an undercurrent of melancholy.
It’s like that all the way through Spectrum (on the Miami-based Spy-Fi label), whose 12 sharply etched songs were penned by Ranta, an exotic Eurasian beauty who also plays rhythm guitar in another popular local band, the Skirts. “I get vocal melodies stuck in my head,” she says. “I figure out the whole song in my head and then try to figure out the guitar, and because of that, it gets kinda twisted. Our songs are really weird and different—like, we’ll have a verse and a chorus, then a bridge and a chorus, then a repeat of the bridge, and then a chorus that’s kinda like the first [one] but not really? It’s really weird, really strange … ”
Ranta smiles and lets the last word hang. It’s a Friday morning at New Helvetia Café in Midtown, and she’s enjoying coffee and muffins across from her partner and bass player, Tim White, who picks up the slack: “The thing is,” he says, “unlike a lot of songwriters who go, ‘Ah, this’ll work,’ she actually thinks out everything to where it flows just right. She’s completely rewritten songs a couple of years after the fact, just because it took a while to take out all the awkwardness so [they] would flow better.”
That seems to be the dynamic that makes Baby Grand tick. According to White, Ranta focuses her creative drive into writing the songs, while he and their two bandmates, drummer Tony Cale and newly added second guitarist J-R Thompson, concentrate on the technical aspects—making sure that guitar tones are suitably stellar, and that everything is clicking the way it should. Cale and Thompson, brothers-in-law, know a thing or two about sound; they co-own Retrofit Recordings, where Spectrum was recorded. Cale also drums for Forever Goldrush, while White also moonlights in the Alamos, Bright Ideas, the Sutters Four and, occasionally, the Alkali Flats.
Baby Grand grew out of another band Ranta was fronting, Salmonella, which White had joined for its final incarnation. “I’d been in Salmonella for five years,” Ranta says. “I’d been listening to some different kinds of pop music with Tim, and it opened my eyes to this whole new world of melodic pop—the Television Personalities, the Apples in Stereo … ” White jumps in—“ … the Zombies, the Kinks. So Baby Grand grew out of a desire to do more pop stuff than we were doing in Salmonella, which was more of an angular punk thing.”
A painting by White, who once wrote about art openings for SN&R, graces the cover of Spectrum; it depicts a black vinyl record with the Decca “color bar” label found on American pressings of Who albums spinning on a turntable. It accurately evokes the striking blend of retro and modern that makes Baby Grand’s music such a heavenly confection—and an easy addiction to acquire.