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Irene, simply put, is an enabler.
Ostensibly a duo, Cincinnati's Bad Veins are able to augment their indie-pop performances with a vintage reel-to-reel player, such a crucial element to the band that it's been anthropomorphized, sort of as a do-it-all female multi-instrumentalist (complete with her own Twitter: @thereelirene).
"Irene does her bit and we do our bit, so we've never really limited ourselves as far as the sonic soundspace," says drummer Sebastien Schultz. "There's tons of tracks and lots of orchestration, and that's something that with having the tape deck with us playing live, we're not under any constraints."
And as much as that constraint-free approach mattered for Bad Veins' 2009 self-titled debut, it was more crucial to the just-released follow-up, The Mess We've Made, an expansively poppy record that was tabbed album of the week by USA Today. In its ongoing state-by-state roundup of bands, Paste magazine named Bad Veins the top Ohio band to listen to now.
Fans of The Format will find a lot to like in The Mess We've Made, with its big, polished production and array of sounds — banjo, ukulele, strings, and horns — that embellish the synth-guitar-drums backbone.
"If we were thinking of making an album for the live show, there's probably no way we would have strings and a choir backing us," Schultz says. "It's important for us to put it out of our heads and know eventually we'll figure it out. The number one thing is simply making the best album."
Schultz and singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Benjamin Davis recorded over a three-month period at Audiogrotto, a church turned recording studio in Newport, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
"I didn't really have any sort of outlandish expectations," Schultz says. "One of the things that led to the sound of the album overall was having the time in the studio. We had a couple of months to work on everything and get it just the way we wanted it to sound. It was much more achievable this time around to match the sound we had in our heads. Most bands can identify with that — there's always one last thing you want to get to. We had the time to make it a little more slick and that goes with having more time."
The band spent a lot of time in pre-production, arranging the basic tracks and all the flourishes, and let things sit for about a month before returning to mixing and sculpting the final sound.
"We certainly are an indie band, and we both came out of that with other bands, and we love that sort of music. But we also grew up listening to pop music, from Phil Collins to Michael Jackson," Schultz says. "We both love popular music [and] we don't shy away from that. It's something that came through on this album and our work to really get the sounds right before we went into recording."
Davis' lyrics often exist in the diary realm — no surprise, considering the record's title. Choice snippets of lyrics — "I could run all day just chasing my failures away," "I'd never argue that I'm anything if not a mess," and "For better or worse I am still a child" — all point to the album's theme.
"Introspection and self-doubt are pretty much the theme of Bad Veins. Growing and evolving, also," Schultz says.
Bad Veins won't discuss the origin of the band name, but they've been completely open about Irene, whom they call a "robot with feelings and orchestral overtones."
"We just as easily [could've hooked up] an iPod and hide that behind me, but we've elected to use the reel-to-reel and embrace it. We can point to it and stop it and start it," Schultz says. "Every show has some new people who have never seen us before, and they look at the setup and wonder how it works. It's nice when people get drawn in visually."