WHEN THE Kennedys, Pete and Maura, perform at Iota on Thursday night, they'll unveil a batch of clever, catchy and beautifully crafted songs that appear on the duo's new album "Evolver."
As in the landmark Beatles release "Revolver"?
Yes and no, says Pete, speaking on the phone from the duo's home in Northern Virginia. While the Beatles certainly inspired the making of "Evolver" -- the Fab Four's imprint is clearly evident on several tracks -- the album's title can also be viewed more literally.
"With the last album, `Angel Fire,' we were trying to sound like our live duo as closely as possible," explains Pete, a veteran Washington guitar ace. "On this album we kind of went in the opposite direction. `Revolver' was the first time when the Beatles tried to do stuff that wouldn't be really easy to reproduce onstage. So we decided to do something where we would have to chase the record after we had it done and make the stage act follow whatever innovative stuff we wanted to do."
Nearly all of the songs on "Evolver" were composed by the duo during a two-month tour last year. Several motel rooms along the way served as makeshift recording studios.
"It just happened to be a really prolific time," says Maura on an extension phone. "When we got home and were able to put together everything we had written and demo-ed on the road, it was more than an album's worth of stuff. That's probably why it's got a fresh sound, because we weren't really trying to make an album."
"Evolver" marks a new and surprising phase for the Kennedys regarding production techniques. A lot of the tracks were created with drum loops as a foundation, something the duo had never attempted in the past. The trick, as Pete says, was to find the right balance of instrumentation and technology. "Once the drum loops were laid down, instead of taking them in a direction that would put them in a certain genre -- techno, jungle, bass 'n' drum, house, or whatever -- the next thing we'd do was put down some Rickenbacker guitar, which is real pop-sounding." As a result, Pete says, the album "didn't go in a predictable direction."
Studio tinkering aside, the songwriting strategy remains the same. Shortly after they met in Austin almost a decade ago -- "the first thing we did was write a song," Pete recalls -- the duo developed an approach to songwriting inspired by the Byrds' recording of "Eight Miles High."
"It had Beatles-like pop," Pete says, as well as folk, classical, jazz and Indian influences. "We thought if we could take that approach then we could integrate everything and it will always stay fresh."
It wasn't long before Pete's musical influences were rubbing off on Maura and vice versa. "The British folk rock was something I didn't know that well," Pete says. "I just hadn't really delved into it. Maura taught me a lot about that and showed me which Fairport Convention and Richard Thompson albums to listen to."
As for Maura, she's still a bit embarrassed to admit that she was only vaguely familiar with the Beatles before meeting her husband-to-be. "Of course, Pete has every Beatles album so I really learned all that. I knew the hits and stuff, but I never heard `Rain' before I met Pete and that changed my life."
The Kennedys have since gone on to discover other musics, including Japanese pop. In fact, that influence inspired "Good Morning Groovy," one of the more amusing and engaging tracks on "Evolver."
Maura recalls the tune's genesis. "We had just listened to a Pizzicato Five tune called `Groovy Is My Name.' We thought that was really funny because here's this Japanese group singing what they're thinking is real American stuff, but they're getting it slightly wrong. Like when you're putting a model together and you're reading directions and it's translated from Japanese and you kind of get it but it's slightly wrong. So this is our attempt of the Americans doing the Japanese doing the Americans -- totally tongue-in-cheek."
While "Good Morning Groovy" stands out on "Evolver" by virtue of its sheer pop innocence, a streak of optimism runs throughout the album.
The tone isn't deliberate, Maura says. "We're just writing from our own experience, but we are not going to try to disguise the optimistic nature we have, though we've been encouraged to do that at different points in our recording career. We just like to write from our own perspective."
Pete concurs. "We've been criticized for being optimistic from the viewpoint that we could sell more records if we would adopt a more fashionably cynical outlook. But I think music has to come from inside rather than looking at trends. You have to do what you feel inside."
THE KENNEDYS -- Appearing at Iota on Thursday. To hear a free Soundbite from the Kennedys, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)