Nobody makes music in a vacuum. But sometimes you need a little room. Far from the brashness of LA or the bustle of New York, the Belles hail from the wide open spaces of Kansas, where guitarist and songwriter Christopher Tolle and percussionist Jake Cardwell fashion their exquisite, dreamy, deliciously melancholic songs full of languid charm and lo-fi but potent mellowness.
Don’t be misled by the definitive article of the name. The gentle atmospherics of The Belles have little in common with the shock-and-awe tactics of bands such as The Vines and The Hives. They’ve called their debut album Omerta. It means the code of silence and to break it, you really need to have something to say that demands to be heard.
The Belles do, as you can hear when they precede the album and break the code with the four track EP (Who Will Be) Here To Hear. It's a record that leaves you desperate to hear more. Which, of course, is just as it should be.
One American review of the duo's album declared, “The Belles write beautiful songs, and that's all there really is to it.” Well, they certainly do write beautiful things. And you could leave it at that. But, of course, there's also a little more to the story, as you might imagine.
“We’ve known each other a long time,” explains Chris. “We were playing in different bands. Jake was living in Kansas City and I was living in Lawrence. But our paths were always crossing.” After a year or two, Jake, too, moved to Lawrence. "It's classic middle America,” Chris says. “But it's also a university town, so it’s very cool. There’s always been an underground scene. Yet there’s no spotlight and it’s untouched. There are lots of bands all doing their own thing.”
Indeed, both Chris and Jake were doing their own thing in other bands - Chris in power pop outfit the Creature Comforts and Jake working with a variety of other people. But sitting atop various bar stools in Lawrence on their nights off, they discovered shared musical tastes and philosophies. And when Chris gave Jake a demo tape of some songs he'd written but that didn’t really work for the Creature Comforts, they began to see the possibilities.
“I had these songs and I’d been thinking of doing them on my own and going solo,” Chris admits. “I wanted to keep them fairly minimalist. But Jake had the right attitude. The things he did were simple but interesting.”
Other commitments meant initially they could only get together once a week and they formed their own Tuesday Night Music Club. “It was very loose and casual. And some Tuesdays we couldn’t do it because we had other gigs. But we tried to make it a weekly date,” Jake says.
Encouraged by the sound they were making, they began to convene more regularly. Before long, on the strength of the demos they recorded, they were signed to Lakeshore Records. “That was fortuitous because we were going to make the album without a label anyway.” Chris says.
Recorded variously at Chris’s house and Jake’s house, they listened ceaselessly to Emmitt Rhodes and Dwight Twilley while making the record, although they cite as their other heroes “the two Neils and the two Pauls.” As in Young and Finn and McCartney and Westerberg.
“The songs on the album are simple and honest,” Chris says. “They’re not clever pop songs. They’re not about bridges and catchy choruses or being anthemic. They’re the most personal songs I’ve ever written.”
Several of the songs such as Liquid Breakfast, His Undoing Was His Undoing and Who Will Be Here To Hear? are essentially their original home-recorded eight-track demos. They really didn’t need any further adornment.
The pared-down roots-style perhaps fits the current vogue for all things Americana. But the Belles are wary of labels. “It might be we’re part of that,” Chris says. “But we haven’t really connected with any movement. We’re very insulated in Kansas. To me honest music has a lot of geography in it and you can hear where we come from.”
A year after the album’s American release, Omerta is now to be released in Britain on Eat Sleep Records. “They’re a really cool label,” Jake says. “They read a review of the record when they were in New York and went to Other Music and bought a copy. Then they signed us.” The deal was cemented at South x South West in Austin in March.
So beautiful songs and that’s all there is to it? Are there no tales of rock’n’roll debauchery to spice up their admirable CV? They think hard for a moment.... “Well, we once stole the flag of the police chief in Pittsburgh,” offers Jake. “But we’re a bit ashamed of that really,” adds Chris. “It was the people we were staying with got busted for it because we’d already left town.”
Away from such escapades, they’ve already recorded a further seven tracks for an EP due for release on the Kansas City label Second Nature, sometime in 2004. Before then Britain finally gets to hear Omerta, one of the best kept secrets in American music of the past year. The code of silence has been well and truly broken and The Belles are ringing out.