On Sugar Beat — her fourth album under the nom de disque astroPuppees — singer-songwriter-producer Kelley Ryan expands her sonic palette to include “monkey bell,” “pants rub,” and “pastry brush on toy tin drum” as well as guitars, bass, Casio, loops, and vocals.
Recorded in her Los Angeles home basement and in Cork, Ireland, Sugar Beat is the astroPuppees’ second album for Ryan’s independent Manatee Records label. The first, Little Chick Tsunami, was issued in 2002; two previous astroPuppees discs, You Win The Bride and Pet, were released on Oakland, CA-based indie High Tone Records in 1996 and 1999, respectively.
One of the main reasons Ryan chooses to record under the astroPuppees moniker is that the name’s plural implications enable her to enlist the talents of a free-floating pool of collaborators. Don Dixon — whose credits include producing the first three R.E.M. albums — mixed and sequenced Sugar Beat, adding upright bass to the wistful, kite-like ballad, “Twisting Around The Blue.”
Dixon and his wife, veteran solo artist Marti Jones, also provide the cushy, cotton candy harmonies that propel the sweetly swaying pop-soul confection of the title track. (Incidentally, “Sugar Beat” was co-written with Bill DeMain, who played guitar and bass on the track and whose Swan Dive outfit scored a No. 2 hit in Japan back in 2001 with another Kelley Ryan co-write, “Girl On A Wire”; the astroPuppees’ version of that song appears on Little Chick Tsunami as well as in an episode of the “Felicity” TV show.)
Jones also contributes harmonies to the slow rolling romance of “Killer Night” — co-written by Kelley and her sister Teri Ryan, who sings backup alongside JodyWestover and Kym Wilkerson (the late, great Del Shannon’s daughters) on the pointed portrait “All About Someday” — the girl-group goes guitar-pop “On My Way,” and the set-closing, all- senses-overloaded “Useless Information.” The latter was co-authored by Kelley and Jesse Valenzuela (of Gin Blossoms fame), whose six-string work graces the tune as well as the aforementioned title track.
While “On My Way” and the similarly classic pop stylings of “Going Down” were penned by Ryan and her frequent astroPuppees collaborator, Maureen Serrao, the album’s inexorably uplifting opener, “Take Me Home,” was written in conjunction with Rachel Hayden, who also sings backing vocals on the curtain-raiser.
The bouncy “Firecracker Boys” — with that indelible, bell-like “bon, c’est bon, c’est bon …” French catch-phrase in its chorus — and the space-age bachelorette pad pop of “Distant Fire” are solo Ryan compositions. Serrao sings back-ups on the former; fellow longtime astroPuppees conspirator John Oreshnick plays drums and occasional percussion throughout.
Thanks in part to Ryan’s kitsch-in-synch approach to production, Sugar Beat presents a more streamlined, moderne pop sound than previous astroPuppees efforts. Odd textures and tonalities swirl around the
room like eccentric concentric circles. Sometimes slinky, often sparse — those silences are loud! — the 10 songs on Sugar Beat are something more than mere recreations of great pop things past. Ryan spent her childhood virtually surrounded by music. Her father was a radio DJ in her native Oregon. Upon moving to Los Angeles , she spent 10 years working for a music publishing firm.
Although she’d always played guitar and written songs, Ryan’s first public performance — backed by her vocalist sister Teri, bassist/vocalist Maureen Serrao, and Grays drummer Dan McCarroll — didn’t come until 1994.
Temporarily setting aside her musical career for a 1995 stint at Ireland’s famed Ballymaloe Cooking School — Maureen Serrao had embarked on a similar culinary course in the States — Ryan returned from the Emerald Isle, ensconced herself in her home studio, and created what would become the first astroPuppees album.
Those lucky enough to hear the astroPuppees’ records rewarded Ryan with rapturous critical acclaim and cult-artist sales. However, most people have probably heard her music via the astroPuppees songs having appeared in two fistfuls of indie films and television shows.
For openers, there’s “Any More Words” in Judging Amy, “Like A Suitcase” in AnotherWorld, and “Long As U Love” in Roswell as well as the Jane White Is Sick & Twisted film. “Dead Around Here” — heard in the William Macy-starring Colin Fitz — and “Over Her Head” — found in the Julia Styles-Shirley McLaine vehicle, Carolina — complete this winning hand.
Perhaps the most famous example of this cross-media exposure came when “Don’t Be” — first heard on You Win The Bride — was chosen to be the song that Shannon Doherty’s band (Dead Pink) performs throughout the NBC-TV film, Friends ‘Til The End.
“Don’t Be” was also featured along with the astroPuppees’ “Underdog” in the indie film Trojan War that starred Jennifer Love Hewitt. The latter tune also appears in the Lesley Ann Warren-toplined All Of It film.
Meanwhile, no less than 17 astroPuppees songs were used in the soundtrack to the indie film documentary Man Hunt that aired on the cable TV’s Oxygen channel back in 2003.
Ryan also wrote two songs and sang on Marti Jones’s My Tidy Doily Dream album, co-wrote “Lucky Stars” with Jesse Valenzuela for his new Gabriel Records solo CD, Tunes Young People Will Enjoy, and has performed on tribute albums to Del Shannon and Illinois pop legends the Shoes.
That’s all fine as a jug of wine — and it certainly keeps a loaf of bread on the table — but as Kelley herself sings in a voice that’s as crystalline as it is guileless, “Now nothing matters … We’re going to the Sugar Beat …”