I caught Tele Novella at their Portland stop over the weekend. They were nearing the end of a national tour in support of their first LP, and the band was clearly in fighting shape. The debut, House of Souls, is an incredibly complete album reimagining ’60s power pop and garage sounds. Frontwoman Natalie Ribbons explained on stage that the album title refers to the ghosts of a haunted house. This conceit is established in the opening track, “Sacramento.” The lyrics––as I hear them––go:
The House of Souls it’s calling you home.
It’s ringing in your ear,
it’s known you all these years.
“Come back to Sacramento.”
One day you’ll die, going into the light,
and you’ll find yourself here.
Turn the doorknob without fear—
you were always comin’ here,
since the day your soul appeared.
Spooky stuff. Like zoinks, Scoob. From a songwriting approach it’s a good idea; the thoughts and past lives of ghosts make for more memorable details and a broader emotional range than the autobiographical approach of most rock lyricists.
It’s not all fiction, though, as Ribbons herself hails from Sacramento. She moved to Austin about six or seven years ago and started dating bassist Jason Chronis. They’d intended to put a group together for a while, but their plans were put on fast-forward when Ribbons’ former band, Agent Ribbons, broke up shortly before a South By Southwest gig. Chronis said, “We just threw the band together. It was our first show. We’d only been practicing for a few weeks.” So they debuted their band at a major festival. It’s not unlike how Led Zeppelin started (a band Tele Novella are not very much like… so never mind).
House of Souls displays some fairly expert pop arrangements, with nothing unnecessary in the instrumentation. That’s not to say there isn’t some studio magic going on, but all the instrumentals are done with good taste and in service to the song. There is a sweet Belle and Sebastian quality to the layers of ear candy in “Heavy Balloon,” particularly the xylophone (or marimba, or whatever). The music with its vintage sounding production calls to mind a cleaned-up Kinks. The songs’ chord structures often take a winding path from tension to resolution, particularly on “Teseract.” Its smart music, but too fun to be pretentious. In its sprit and warped fairy tale story-telling, it reminds me of The Music Tapes, primary project of Neutral Milk Hotel’s saw player Julian Koster.
Considering the album’s subject matter, combined with a given song’s minor tonality, strained organ tones and ghosty background vocals, Tele Novella can flip a switch and go full-Halloween. I asked Chronis if this was a set concept at the start of the band, but he said he and Natalie didn’t start writing with that in mind. He added, “The spooky thing came about because we both love Halloween.” Asked about early influences he said, “We have a lot of common ground, Natalie and I. We both love The Zombies, one of our favorite bands of all time. We especially like the more melodic, but melancholy side of things—sweet and sour chords… something that catches your ear off guard.”
They put on a phenomenal show. The keyboard sounds melt together with the guitar, especially at its most reverbiest. Natalie Ribbons with her theatrical expressions, wide-eyed lyric delivery and witch-green blouse embodies the songs. Also, she and Jason have worked out some goofy foot choreography that they really commit to.
Check them out—Tele Novella is hella swell, fella.