by Jeff Milo
Tone wasn't used to this royal treatment -
...waking up to the summer's sun and the robust smell of organic coffee inside a colonial mansion with an in-ground swimming pool, strolling into the studio and being asked by a professional sound engineer what he wanted to play today - the Vox AC30 or the Fender tube...
The band "and I were all in heaven," said Tone, "there were tons of rhodes electric pianos, a grand piano, a B3 organ, guitars, amps, drums..."
The local singer/songwriter, known as Anthony (Tony / "Tone") Retka, is used to, essentially, just busking it at humble, cozy hideaways like Cafe 1923, alongside his longtime collaborator, violinist Nicole ("Niche") Varga. In their eight years as a duo, they've collaborated with a revolving cast of musicians to release three LPs, four EPs and one Singles comp, each documenting the steady evolution of their jangly/electric, orchestral/rock brand of wistfulAmericana.
Last summer, they were hosted by producer Bruce Barkelew, ("a very down to earth guy," Retka enthused), in his studio (yes, inside a mansion) inColumbia,MO.The group (including James Sterling Lees - bass, who's been with the group for two years, Roger Dutcher - drums, with them now for three years, and former member, Nick White) "made a road trip out of it," hunkering down for eight days inside their heavenly studio to craft one of their most poignant and fully realized records to date.
Tone & Niche host a release party this Friday (Oct 28) at the Berkley Front.
"The energy was great," Tone said, looking back to the recording process, now more than a year ago. "The passion was there, and the friendship was definitely there." (You can see video of Tone & Niche in studio here).
Vocals had to be finished back inMichigan, though. "We stayed up late and worked on music," Retka said, "(then) did some swimming, hangin' out, and runnin' around like loonies!"
Staying up till 4am jamming (or swimming) and then waking up at 9am to get back in the studio will play hell upon anyone's vocals, even the sturdy pipes of Retka. He downed some tea and lozenges on the drive back up - ready to finish up with Lees, an audio engineer himself, who worked on overdubs and helped Retka with mixing and mastering.
Niche's chirping, trilling violin and viola solos were "top," Retka said, "total top! She played her heart out all over Everything Is Good." (This album hears the debut of her singing voice, adding in backing vocals on a few tracks). "(Lees) brought it on organ, a great guy with good ideas; Dutcher did his job and did it well; he layered some great fills on the closing track." "Hangman" is a dusky, minimalist folk lullaby that swells with an organ into an eerily beautiful swaying ballad that has a unique tumbling outro).
Plus, Retka said, it was great having longtime member White, who'd gone off toPhoenixto teach art.
Retka uses the word "conscious" to describe he and Niche's state of mind, upon entering the studio. They've formed their most "detailed" and "accessible" album, they feel - and admit to purposefully dashing in elements of Electric Light Orchestra. "I also got to scream a bit on a track, "Burning All The Magazines," that was fun. I wanted to tap into my Nirvana and Pixies roots a bit."
Opener, "I'm Not Asking You," bursts with buzzy, echo-heavy electric guitars under their intertwining vocals whirling with a ring-round-the-rosy melody for an uncharacteristically poppy-ditty - offset by its shoulder-chipped subtle-lash-out lyrics, equally applicable to frustrations with every day life, politics, or day jobs as it could be with a music scene's cliquey, catty inertia.
"Burning All The Magazines" does strike a brooding pre-grunge indie sludge vibe at first, with that grimacing bass line, but it quickly brightens its hues with their baroque-pop flares of jangling acoustic guitars and poignant violin saws. Retka winds his usually soft-brushed croon up to a fierce howl, matching not only the fire of the dueling guitar/violin solos, but the fire of his lyrics, setting some ferocious scenes, again repudiating the poisonous perils of scenesterism.
Tone and Niche, though, have always had a bit of a dark side - it's that they made it sound so beautiful that's been their charm, all along.