CARRY ON: For Little Steven, the Charms’ star quality made them a good bet.
It’s a recent Sunday near midnight, and Charms leaders Ellie Vee and Joe Wizda have their ears to the radio. Little Steven Van Zandt’s Underground Garage is playing on WROR FM, and the Charms’ “Broken Heart,” the leadoff single from their new album on Van Zandt’s Wicked Cool label, Strange Magic, is about to make its debut as “Coolest Song of the Week.” This probably shouldn’t be a shocker for the band, since garage-rock booster Van Zandt has been championing them for years. But when the moment arrives, Vee and Wizda are still visibly thrilled, especially when he name-checks every member of the Charms and pays the compliment of segueing from “Broken Heart” into a Kinks garage classic.
“Man, I love that song,” says Wizda of “Broken Heart,” which he and Vee wrote. It’s a full-blown Phil Spector homage, one of the album’s departures from a down-the-middle garage sound. “It started with a dream I had where Frankie Valli was singing that song to me. When I realized the song didn’t exist yet, we had to write it.” Vee adds, “I’m also realizing how much we love Jim Diamond,” naming the Detroit producer (of White Stripes and Von Bondies fame) who produced the new disc. “He totally got us. That song sounds like it’s not even us — it sounds like all the bands we love.”
The moment of triumph has been a long time coming for the Charms, who started six years ago with little more than a love for all things garage. (Wizda had played in rockabilly bands; Vee was in the alt-pop group Flexie.) From the start, they had success on their minds: Vee became a far flashier frontwoman then she had been, and Wizda got more into guitar heroics. (The rest of the line-up has changed more often than anyone likes to recount.) But their ambitions have always been balanced by their status as diehard fans. And it’s not just Frankie Valli. “When we started out, all we knew was that we loved the Lyres,” Vee says. “We didn’t think there’d be a network all over the world.”
Van Zandt’s Underground Garage was one of the catalysts. Little Steven has programmed his share of Boston music on the syndicated FM show and on his Sirius channel: Lyres tracks pop up regularly, and even Kenne Highland’s “Not Too Shabby at the Abbey,” with its local in-jokes, has been on Sirius a few times. But he’s gone the extra mile for the Charms, who are practically his flagship band by now. He’s had them on national package tours and high-profile shows (including a New Year’s Eve ’06 show with the New York Dolls in NYC); he produced a Christmas song for them when he was commissioned to do the Christmas with the Kranks soundtrack; and they were one of the first bands signed to his label. When you consider that the other bands on the label — the Woggles and the Chesterfield Kings — have been around for some time, the Charms really are the first new band Van Zandt’s signed, certainly the first with youthful sex appeal.
“I’m looking for bands who want to be stars,” he says when I reach him by phone. “That grunge thing where people think it’s not cool to want to be successful? I think that’s uncool. Bands should look good on stage, they should be inspiring and motivating. That adds up to a certain star quality, and the Charms have that. They also have a consistency in everything they do; they put in an emotional investment, and I like that. The new album is a step forward, it’s more diverse, but it didn’t even have to be: I love the Ramones, so I don’t think bands have to progress. The Charms could have made 10 more albums that sounded just like Pussycat [their 2005 album on Red Car] and I still would have been happy.”
I’ll disagree with Little Steven on this one, though: Strange Magic is a considerable upgrade from the fast, fun rock of Pussycat, and it marks a big step forward for the band. With Diamond’s help they’ve branched out: the rockers rock harder (the roaring opener, “American Way” is pure MC5), they incorporate Bowie glam and deploy acoustic guitars artfully, and their love for bubblegum and Brill Building pop is more fully realized. Vee still does her trademark siren wails when called for, but she sings more emotively as well. In addition to polishing their sound, Diamond showed them some trade secrets, including the “Jack White tape recorder” that was used on the White Stripes’ albums. Vee: “It’s an old reel-to-reel, and anyone who sings into it sounds like Jack White.” She resisted, but Wizda did play one solo through it.