Graded on a Curve: Cayetana, “Hot Dad Calendar” b/w “Ella” 7″

Cayetana are a relatively new melodic punk trio on the scene, hailing from Philadelphia and composed of singer-guitarist Augusta Koch, bassist Allegra Anka, and drummer Kelly Olsen. They’ve been busy making a demo, taping a radio session, and most recently completing a short tour with All Dogs and Waxahatchee, but it’s their “Hot Dad Calendar” b/w “Ella” 7-inch that really positions them as an act to watch.

The story is that all three members of Cayetana began learning their respective instruments right at the moment they decided to form the group. It’s a reality that’s quickly palpable in their still very slim repertoire of original compositions, though I don’t intend to suggest their songs are lacking in accomplishment or are somehow rudimentary.

To the contrary, the band consistently exhibits solid command over their songwriting, though it’s also executed without flashiness, a lack wholly appropriate to the style they offer. In contrast to the sound of those ever-present youthful outfits that feature a disparity of instrumental ability, containing one or two obviously talented players as the rest of the band do everything they can to keep up (or maybe better said, not screw up), Cayetana’s songs present a group equality that’s refreshing.

Refreshing but not unfamiliar, especially from within the various related genre descriptors they inhabit, with the tags on their Bandcamp page reading as follows; alternative, grrl band, indie rock, punk, queer, Philadelphia. I don’t disagree with anything on that list, but will add that the trio embraces melodicism so deeply that it wouldn’t hurt a bit of they tossed the terms post-punk and even indie pop into the mix.

Cayetana are clearly disinterested in generic thrash and bash, instead inhabiting a femme-rock impulse that is by now well-ensconced in the music’s back-story. And perhaps the group’s most impressive feat at this early point is how they manage to insinuate themselves into that history without becoming too indebted to any one particular hunk of precedent, or for that matter falling too close to the sound of their contemporaries.

That aforementioned sonic equality, which is indeed somewhat reminiscent of the wave of gal-bands that gushed out of the early ‘90s indie milieu, is for instance distinct from the rock heft of the Screaming Females, a trio that possesses a strong rhythm section and a downright brilliant guitar powerhouse in Marissa Paternoster. But Cayetana’s non-virtuosity also lacks severity, avoiding the minimal Wire-like angularity present in the initial work of Vivian Girls.

While certainly remindful of the ‘90s, the connection to that decade is also considerably less overt (to these ears, anyway) than it is in the music of Upset, the new band of ex-Vivian Girl Ali Koehler. And Cayetana’s vocal element is sharply assertive with no come-hither nonsense, featuring a rich quaver that’s discrete from the equally unique voice of Paternoster.

It lands Koch with secure authority into the grand tradition of defiantly individual female punk singers (Patti, Poly, Lydia, Ari, Exene, Kathleen, PJ etc) as she steers clear of an attachment to one stylistic mentor and keeps a solid handle on the popish facets of the group’s attack. Along the way Cayetana concoct an approach that’s a pretty comfortable fit for fans of both rocking clamor (a la the Kill Rock Stars stable) and tough melodicism (in the mode of the Slumberland imprint, for one example.)

So, what Cayetana is decidedly not is a breathtaking bunch of groundbreakers, but that fits in quite well with the relative-novice features of their sound as they help to populate a nook of the contemporary scene that generally values astutely rendered variations upon tried-and-true templates over blatant displays of originality.

Or more succinctly, they get the sound right and then let the music do the talking. It’s the main reason Cayetana have been kicking up so much recent dust. Prior to this 7-inch the documented evidence of their development came through a three song demo (the source of this 45’s b-side) and an archived four song radio session (which included a version of “Hot Dad Calendar.”) And while they’ve been busy, they are still an undeniably young group, with their recorded repertoire only including five compositions.

No duds are found in that small number, but the band does reveal a promising level of self-astuteness by choosing their two strongest tunes for inclusion on their vinyl debut. And “Hot Dad Calendar” is maybe the best of the whole batch, being loaded with just about everything that makes this sort of hooky guitar pop with punk edge enduringly worthwhile.

Guitar, bass and drums are all well represented in the mix, foregrounding a more frequently discussed element in the whole concept of instrumental equality, an aspect that’s only underscored by their trio conception. Not only does Anka’s bass serve the needs of rhythm and melody simultaneously, there are also moments where she effectively, if briefly, carries the song.

And the drums are consistently in the pocket, driving the tune forward with the sheer infectious verve of a young player with no compunction over employing the entirety of her kit. Olsen’s manner in attacking the cymbals is surely well appreciated, but it’s really her sturdy battering of the toms that kicks the value of “Hot Dad Calendar” upward a few crucial notches.

Koch’s confident but well-controlled guitar strumming produces just enough of a racket to be inaptly described as jangly, and yet it doesn’t necessarily subvert the indie pop underpinnings of the cut. And as outlined above, her singing is a distinct adhesive, pulling the instrumentation even closer together as she shows impressive range, particularly on the final belt-out of the chorus.

In fact, Koch’s singing of reliably non-trite lyrics might be Cayetana’s strongest attribute at this early juncture. It’s definitely the characteristic of “Ella” that propels it from a solid, inspired b-side into the ballpark of something more. The music rolls along pleasantly enough, presenting a vaguely post-punkish wall of thickness (I’ll also mention that the smart production adds tangible benefits at high volume), but it’s the combination of sass and ache in Koch’s voice that really enhances the track’s emotional weight and brings the musical edginess into full flower.

In summation, the Tiny Engines label has chalked-up a winner with this 45, a disc that manifests an increasingly rare phenomenon, specifically a 7-inch debut that lingers on the sweet brink of greatness. Of course, it remains to be seen how they’ll choose to build upon this fresh momentum. An upcoming LP is tentatively slated for release this summer, so happily the delay in finding out won’t be long. I’ll be eagerly waiting, and anybody that digs the genre umbrella Cayetana lounge under might want to make their acquaintance now rather than later.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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