A copper hand-bell tolls in the distance, as if breaking through the fog of a dream. It summons us to gather, be seated and give our full attention to the show that is about to commence. A dim light casts a dusky glow over a two-tiered Victorian-era ballroom. A heavy velvet curtain stands ominously before us behind a lonely stage. We don't feel uneasy, but we don't exactly feel safe.
Then the curtain opens, the music begins and we slowly fall into the wistful words of Emily Neveu like we're slipping onto a bed of soft cotton.
“Rest your head, slowly close your breath/Completely satisfied, completely say goodbye/“It's your time…”
This is what it feels like to listen to the beginning of “All We've Left to Do is Pay the Boatman,” the first song from Calico Horse's upcoming debut album, Mirror. The subject of the song is death, but I'm not quite sure it's ever been approached with such grace or warmth.
The entire album feels like the soundtrack to a dusty reel of flickering, grainy, disconnected images of childhood friendships, locked eyes, beating hearts, withering skin, peaceful resting and momentary portraits of sadness. Upon first listen, Mirror has me pondering my own mortality—something I honestly hadn't considered much at all. But that spiritual inquest appears to be a journey that Neveu, vocalist and songwriter for Calico Horse, has taken many times.“I think to some degree, everyone is fascinated with the idea of death,” Neveu says. “It's the ultimate unknown. That's why I like writing about things like death and the universe. You can sit and analyze those two things and you'll never really know how it works.”
Such cosmic questions loom heavy throughout the album, but not in the traditional impending-doom sense. Death is treated with the same delicate beauty and new-skin wonder as birth. Listen to the track “Happy Placebo Syringe Day” and you'll understand. Neveu manages to replace the clichéd fear of that sudden stop at the end with an almost welcoming feeling, like a new chapter to a book that goes beyond this physical existence.
“We can't live our lives in fear of death—that's not a life,” Neveu says. “I am not obsessed with death, but I'm fascinated with the thought of an inevitable that is obscure. I'm also discouraged with the idea of a definable afterlife scenario: heaven and hell. Life isn't that simple, so why should the afterlife be?”
I was invited to meet the band at Stereo Disguise Research Laboratories, the studio where parts of Mirror were recorded and where the band is now recording some new tracks.
I find local musician/producer Pall Jenkins—best known for leading The Black Heart Procession—in the studio's control room, intensely focused on the dual computer screens before him as Neveu lays down the vocals to a wide-open, western-tinged waltz in the booth. Her vocals are beautifully controlled, haunting and vaguely operatic. The recording stops and Jenkins frenetically clicks and drags vocal sections on the computer and pieces them together. During the pause, Neveu apologizes for a section she's assumed she screwed up.
“Don't worry about it, it sounds great,” Jenkins sounds off over the control-room microphone.
“Pall is a dream to work with,” Neveu gushes. “The recording atmosphere is almost fairytale-like. He is extremely open to experimentation and using strange noises and instruments. He encouraged me to expand my musicianship by recording with instruments I'm not familiar with. It's inspiring to be around a musician like Pall that I have respected for a long time.”
The experimentation follows into Neveu's songwriting, which seems to have grown more confident since the first recordings of her former band, The Clock Work Army.
“The Clock Work Army was my first attempt at a band,” Neveu says. “It was a growing experience that helped develop me as a musician and frontwoman. Adding Matt [Mournian] and Tom [Peart] also made a huge difference. They are both seasoned musicians and know how to communicate and collaborate efficiently. It's really an honor to be playing with all three guys in the band.”
The three guys are bassist David “Petti” Pettijohn (another former member of The Clock Work Army), drummer Peart (Comfortable For You) and guitarist Mournian (Goodbye Blue Monday).
“This is a whole new style for me,” Mournian says. “The whole technique is different, the whole approach. But I really enjoy it.”
Given the short time Calico Horse has been playing together live, they're an incredibly tight unit and have already created a huge buzz. Just this year, the band has opened for the likes of Yeasayer, MGMT, Helio Sequence, Dead Meadow and Beach House.
Following the mid-May release of Mirror (on Banter Records), the band will hit the road on a nationwide tour. Momentum seems to be the phantom fifth member of the band, as Calico Horse is poised to become the next San Diego band thrust into the national consciousness.
“It's crazy how fast this thing is happening,” Pettijohn says. “For the first time, I really feel like I'm involved in something important, something that will last beyond the scope of just one album. Everyone is motivated and ideas are flowing freely.”