Monday, November 5, 2012

Sandpaper Dolls Only Need Voices

I wrote this for LEO Weekly. Their album release show is tomorrow night at Meat!

Lugging heavy equipment from venue to venue, many bands only dream of leaving all of that hassle behind. Suki Anderson, Amber Estes, and Rebecca Dennison never had to worry about that. Ever since they formed Sandpaper Dolls, instruments were just memories they left in the past.

After playing in several different bands, the trio decided to form their own powerhouse. And this time, their vocal chords alone were enough.

Rather than carrying on like a chipper barbershop quartet, they’ve found their niche in more haunting harmonies. That doesn’t mean they’re leaving behind the fundamentals they learned in previous bands. Each song – although a cappella – has percussive elements, a bassline, and a melody.

That percussion is reflected in various shapes and forms on their forthcoming debut studio album, Swallow Them Whole. “Colors” uses breathing techniques to establish a subtle beat, and a tongue clicks pepper “Cast Your Love” with a certain jazz.

“No matter what culture you’re in, everyone connects with the human voice. And they also connect with percussion in a lot of ways,” explains Dennison.

“Tesla Bossa” showcases some of the innovative ways they’ve been able to transform their voices into multi-dimensional instruments. Between chorus and verse, what sounds like a rousing horn solo overtakes the shuffle.

“We’re good at doing unusual things,” says Anderson, “But not to the point it’s a gimmick. You can push the envelope without pushing things too far.”

That applies to some new ideas they’ve added to their bag of tricks. One that took practice was learning how to sing while breathing in. They tried it because every breath is crucial in music so intimate that a pin drop would be jarring.

Estes laughs when recalling the first time she tried it. “I’m like, okay. I have to hit a note while I’m inhaling.”

Capturing those tiny moments on tape is another challenge. The trio spent three years recording Swallow Them Whole, catching the natural reverb of a church, the creepy vibes in a studio above a funeral home in West Louisville, and some classy moments inside a cave on Lexington Road.

“It was rough,” Anderson jokes, “There was an old mattress in the corner. It was like mud everywhere. It was just this slippery mud fest. It was really fun. It was like being in a hobbit hole almost. Actually a hobbit hole probably would have been nicer.”

To keep dry in the dripping cave, they all held umbrellas over them the entire time. And that was the easy part. Producer Kevin Ratterman (also known for helping My Morning Jacket record Circuital) carried a gigantic tape machine into the cave and covered it and all the cords with plastic.

All that legwork was worth it. The warmth and clarity of the recording is enough to make you feel like you’re standing a foot away from Anderson, Estes and Dennison. The occasional echo gives the three-part harmonies an otherworldy, timeless quality.

Their album release show aims to match that closeness. Sandpaper Dolls will take the stage at Meat, surrounded by candles and as many people as can fit inside the small bar. The night is bittersweet, though. After five years together, this landmark night also marks the Dennison’s departure from the band.

She’s leaving after what she calls a dry creative season and a need to refresh. The parting is amicable, and Estes and Anderson are already rehearsing with a new member.

So just as these three walked into one another’s lives, leaving the clutter of instruments behind, they continue their journey. They’re walking away from a longtime partnership, but headed toward a bright future.