The Short and the Long

Sometimes arty, sometimes poppy, the boys of New California are ready to go the distance

New California singer-songwriter Andrew Block loves Moon Valley.

The sentiment won't be found in any of his lyrics, or even in anything he says. Rather, it's emblazoned on the garish -- and frankly silly-looking -- baseball cap perched on his head.

"I'm not trying to make a statement," he jokes, peeling off the I Love Moon Valley hat. "I don't really love Moon Valley. I don't have anything against it, either. I've only been there once to play a soccer game. I . . . uh . . . I don't know, man."

The bearded, bulky Block is rarely this demure on any subject. A frequently hilarious raconteur with an acid tongue, he hasn't gathered with his New California bandmates to offer opinions on the north Phoenix suburb, but rather to discuss the group, one of the more promising and distinctive outfits currently making noise around town.

New California's membership includes several stalwarts of the local scene. Joining Block -- himself a vet of several bands, most recently AM Radio Allstar -- are drummer Darren Henley (late of Sleepwalker and Deckard) and bassist Aaron Wendt, an alumnus of Niner, Seven Storey Mountain and Go Big Casino. Also in attendance is the newest addition to the group and a recent Colorado transplant, guitarist Ron Marschall.

The band first came together a year and several name changes ago, when Block, Henley and Wendt formed the Young Mothers with veteran Valley tunesmith Jason Castleman ("the best songwriter in town, in the state, for that matter," enthuses Block).

After a few months Castleman begged out of the burgeoning project to focus on raising his young family. After changing its name to A Starlit Pond, the group enlisted the newly relocated Marschall to fill the vacated guitar slot.

Marschall's name will be familiar to many since the bespectacled musician manned the drum kit for Denver-based emo outfit Christie Front Drive. The group achieved quasi-legend status in underground circles in the mid-'90s despite having yielded only a handful of releases (including a split with locals Jimmy Eat World) during its lifetime. Marschall later went on to form the Blue Ontario with CFD guitarist Jason Begin.

With Marschall on board, A Starlit Pond hit the local indie circuit and began work on an eight-song mini-LP -- essentially a glorified demo -- at Wendt's home studio. The concept behind the disc was fairly unconventional, as the group decided to assume the persona of two different bands -- The Scarlatti Tilt and Ego-A-Go-Go -- and record a split CD with itself. This rather novel approach translated well enough to tape, although the group elected not to release the results commercially (a CD-R version of the album is available at the band's shows). By the spring of 2001, the group had changed its name for a third time, settling on the currently in-vogue New California and beginning work on its "official" debut.

Aside from a clutch of recent band compositions, the bulk of New California's catalogue is Block's material, tunes he's written over the past decade but rarely performed. Others, meanwhile, cobble sections, melodies and ideas from long-shelved numbers into new compositions. "A lot of them are just parts and pieces that have been kicking around for a while," says Block of the sources for his varied songscapes.

"With Andrew in the band, we've got a catalogue of songs, hundreds of songs," says Wendt. "He's definitely prolific. But the problem with all those old songs is that there's always new ones coming up that you want to try also. Part of it's my fault 'cause I'm always prompting him to pull out this old song or that old song."

"We're moving at a glacier pace, basically," admits Block.

"But I think that's why the spectrum of the songs has been pretty diverse so far," notes Henley. "There's the real direct sort of pop songs and the kind of atmospheric stuff as well."

Atmosphere and songcraft are clearly the two dominant elements in the New California sound; the band's output alternates between expansive multi-dimensional fare like "The Scarlatti Tilt" and quick to-the-point bursts like "Una Ventura Loca." Similarly schizophrenic is the group's stylistic slant, which ranges from experimental noise jams to downright conventional balladry -- often on the same song.

In fact, the group is given to mutating the shape and form of material on a regular basis. A track like "Ticker Tape Parade," for instance, has undergone several changes, from moody, meandering esoterica to sharp pop construction and back again.

Vocally, Block's languid, deadpan delivery rides a wave of bittersweet melody, as he balances against the fluid counterpoint of Wendt's bass and high harmonies. Henley -- already a master at percussive nuance from his turn with dream-pop trio Sleepwalker -- fills the spaces with sympathetic restraint, while the new-to-the-guitar Marschall brings a refreshingly amateurish perspective to his instrument, coloring the songs with deceptively simple lines and fills. The band's sound, while at times rambling and shambolic, can settle into positively gorgeous passages, like the swirling thrall found on "The Short and the Long."

In establishing its signature ethereal grooves, the band frequently goes beyond its traditional setup of two guitars, bass and drums, and peppers its sound with myriad instruments and sonic doodads. The weapons range from a Fender Rhodes to a cheap Casio -- whatever, they say, fits the moment and mood best.

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