Heavy times

Pub date May 10, 2011


Sometimes it takes leaving a place to appreciate it. This past weekend, I went to Los Angeles. Once back in San Francisco, I walked from my apartment in SoMa by the freeway to my afternoon job at an elementary school in the Mission. I put on my headphones, pressed play, and the high-pitched wail that opens the Sandwitches’ recent release Mrs. Jones’ Cookies (Empty Cellar Records) woke me up.

The sky was endlessly azure. The sun was hitting my back as the cool breeze rushed at me, creating temperate perfection. It would be an understatement to say that the Sandwitches complemented this moment, because the music indeed heightened it. What was a routine walk felt new.

With doo-wop and old country influences, the band’s first full-length release, 2009’s How to Make Ambient Sadcake (Turn Up Records), seems to emerge from the 1950s. On Mrs. Jones’ Cookies, there are moments that sound even older, such as “Miracle Me” with its folk vibrato and flute solo, suggestive of a song for Gold Rush pioneers. then there are songs, like the slow-brewing “Black Rider,” that place the Sandwitches within the SF rock movement happening now. (The group’s Grace Cooper and Heidi Alexander were also former back-up singers for the Fresh & Onlys, which is where the pair originally met, and have released songs with Sonny Smith for his 100 Records project.) I feel that the Sandwitches’ music is from my era, but that the members have lived rich past lives. In this sense, their music is timeless.

Mrs. Jones’ Cookies‘ opening track “In The Garden” sings of forever love, narrating a tale of devotion, with images of diamonds and a locket held to the chest. “Heidi [Alexander], Roxanne [Brodeuer, the group’s drummer], and I can probably all agree that most of our song lyrics come from personal experiences,” explains vocalist-guitarist Grace Cooper, “most always experiences with guys.” On the spirited “Summer of Love,” Cooper and Alexander harmonize a romance story steeped in heated weather metaphors. The song climaxes after the two-minute mark, when the ladies’ vocals peak.

Before I left for L.A., I went to the Eagle Tavern’s second-to-last rock show, where I was able to squeeze to the front for the band’s opening set. Even more than when they fill my San Francisco-world via earbuds, the Sandwitches spellbind live. Cooper and Alexander seem to swing their jaws back and forth to create the complicated harmonies, challenging ranges, and intricate interweaving of their voices that set them apart.

“I’ve always sung a lot, ever since I was a kid,” Alexander says when asked about the Sandwitches’ unique vocals. To fight away the fear of loneliness, she sang show tunes and Joni Mitchell “as loud as I could.” After the vocal climax on “Summer of Love,” the song’s rhythm changes, a compositional surprise that’s executed with grace.

“My Heart Does Swell” is a heartbroken tale of lost love — “I’ve been wasting all my time/ Banging my head against a decorated wall of blame” — with a toy piano solo. “I try my best not to be totally obvious when I’m writing about a relationship,” Cooper adds. “I try to use a lot of fancy imagery and analogies to confuse people.”

The arrestingly gorgeous “Joe Says” talks about a man who says “impossibly beautiful things” and is “in love with every ounce of me.” But there’s an aching ambiguity to the relationship because he also “is out there doing something” and “never did believe in magic.” The song’s last line is “Joe says he has every intention of coming back to me,” but the listener does not know how this story ends.

I live down the street from the Eagle Tavern, which is near where my walk began. While I was away in L.A., the Eagle shut its doors. Most movements or institutions have limited life spans. The Eagle may return as it was, or become something new. “We all love the Eagle and are very sad to see it go,” Alexander says. “It felt good [to play there one last time] even though [the closure is] such a shitty thing. It is the end of a really good era.”