A covers album from a South Florida combo is hardly breaking news, considering this a locale where well-crafted original music is a rare commodity. But when you're talking about the sophomore set from the Postmarks, a group widely hailed for purveying a distinctive style, it should bring you up short to think that, two years after introducing themselves to the world, they would already fall back on a covers album.
The band's eponymous debut album proved the Postmarks were pop pundits with a legitimate claim on insight and intelligence. Released in early 2007, it exuded a willowy, seductive sound that was essentially out of sync with the frenzy of the local tempo, musical and otherwise. Glossy-magazine writers lauded the album and immediately signaled the Postmarks as a band to watch, winning instant comparisons to similarly soothing bands such as Belle & Sebastian, the Cocteau Twins, and Lush.
Hell, in late 2005 — a full year before the release of their debut disc — this newspaper announced the Postmarks had all the skills to win over audiences and music critics across the nation, and sure enough, it turned out to be true.
But when it comes to the band's followup, the aptly titled By-the-Numbers, released two weeks ago, the trio opted to adapt its template to other people's songs. The titles follow a numerical progression and include a mix of indelible classics — the James Bond theme "You Only Live Twice," David Bowie's "Five Years," Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" — and lesser-known picks from The Cure, Blondie, the Ramones, and Ride. The result is a hazy tapestry, one that draws on the hushed vocals of alluring singer Tim Yehezkely — a girl with a boy's name — and the ethereal ambiance created by her bandmates, Jonathan Wilkins and Christopher Moll, who handle most of the instrumentation.
Maintaining a characteristic lowered gaze, the material is informed by a cosmic drift so surreal that even the more familiar songs become all but unrecognizable.
Band members freely admit a covers album could be considered an unlikely move this early in their career, but they insist it merely affirms their individual branding.
"It's about blazing our own trail and not following some sort of music-industry pattern," Wilkins suggests. "I think those established trade routes have fallen under attack, and we need to take evasive action."
The album was supposed to be a kind of water-treading interlude — "simply a way of keeping our name in the press and in the consciousness of the listeners while we spent more time recording the proper followup."
But they surprised themselves. "Because of the time crunch in recording the covers, they sound immediate and contain an energy that isn't on the debut," Wilkins says.
As befits the band's meticulous arrangements, the song selection process was equally labor-intensive. "Each month, we drew up a list of what options were available," Moll explains. "It would have to have a number in the title. It would have to be an artist who we appreciated. Our arrangements would have to work within a grander tapestry in that once you listened to all of the tracks from 1 to 12, it felt like a proper album."
Although the set list ultimately proves cohesive, the members' varied backgrounds might signal otherwise. Moll moved with his father to South Florida from New York in 1989, spending time in the shoegazing indie-pop band 23 in the early Nineties before segueing into dual duty with See Venus and Timewellspent at the beginning of the millennium. Wilkins, who was born in Miami and spent a brief time in San Francisco, was introduced to Moll by a friend who had been told that See Venus was in need of a drummer. The two immediately clicked.
Following the demise of See Venus, Wilkins began a stint as a DJ at Dada in Delray Beach, where regular open-mike nights were part of the draw. It was on one such occasion when Yehezkely, a raven-haired native of Tel Aviv, Israel, who had arrived in Florida via Connecticut, took her turn at the microphone and changed his life. Her vocals seemed to emit an elusive quality that reflected a quiet reserve and an innate vulnerability, and the crowd was instantly mesmerized.
"I never learned to sing; I just did it," Yehezkely says now. "I never considered myself a singer. I still don't.... Sometimes I'm shy, and sometimes I'm not. It depends on the crowd. But I'm definitely more comfortable as a frontperson now. In the beginning, I wanted to crawl under a rock, but now I don't mind."
Although Yehezkely was short on singing experience, the three decided to join forces, choosing the name the Postmarks to reference a sense of timeless communication.
They found a common bond in their admiration for cinematic soundtracks, Brazilian jazz, and a vague sort of Sixties sensuality. Moll cites Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, Patsy Cline, Perry Como, War, Santana, the Beatles, Supertramp, Kiss, and Chic as among his steering currents. "It's all over the place," he admits. "It's all in there, stirred into a delicious concoction that pours out anytime I attempt to make music."
"I've always enjoyed natural-sounding feminine voices as much as well-trained vocalists," Yehezkely says, "so it's not an issue to me that I don't sound like Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera. Their voices are intimidating and powerful, and I'm awestruck when I listen to them. But I also love more subtle, unique, sometimes quieter voices that have unusual beauty and command, like Coralie Clément, Chan Marshall, or Astrud Gilberto."
Wilkins is more evasive when it comes to citing his benchmarks. "They change every year," he notes. "For the last record, it was a nod to French pop and a tentative step toward orchestration. I think with the next original record, it will be closer to delivering on our promises of soundtrack music, with many of the influences from the past year of touring."
The band has already been on seven national tours in support of its first album, including well-received shows at Lollapalooza and South by Southwest in 2007. During the down time from those gigs, the group hit up every independent CD store in its path, and, because the Postmarks are open-minded musicians, their influences began to shift and evolve.
"When you're on tour, you tend to visit a lot of record stores, hanging around towns, and me and Chris got heavily into old Sixties dub reggae and Sixties soul music," Wilkins says. "Then we really started digging for obscure soundtrack/instrumental stuff. Without a doubt, that definitely influenced By-the-Numbers."
Upon returning from its last tour, the band immediately went to work. Both Postmarks albums were recorded at Moll's home studio, Room Recording, with the two men supplying the sounds — organic, sampled, synthesized, and otherwise — with an occasional friend brought in as hired help. The band members are proud of the way the new album turned out, and the blogosphere has already been on fire with praise. Popular Los Angeles radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) is already spinning their cover of the Ramones' "7-11."
"That shows we didn't screw it up," Wilkins says with a laugh.
While both albums have garnered the bandmates enough kudos for them to pack up and head to a larger city, Moll says they have no intention of abandoning South Florida anytime soon. He and Wilkins still reside in Coral Springs, and Yehezkely in Boynton Beach.
"I find it funny when bands enjoy a degree of success locally and then haul ass to Brooklyn, never to be heard from again," Wilkins says. "In Florida, the Postmarks are fairly unique. In New York, there might be a dozen bands doing what we're doing in a four-block radius around Williamsburg. So why would we want to move away for music? I'd love to live in another city for the culture, but to 'make it' in music? I won't name any names; they know who they are."
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"The South Florida music scene has always been a musical buffet," Moll says. "We don't have anything more in common with the local scene than Marilyn Manson, the Mavericks, Dashboard Confessional, Gloria Estefan, Iron & Wine, New Found Glory, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band have or had with each other. I would think, if we asked all of them, their answers would be similar. Ignore the zip code and just make the music you want to make. Whether I lived within the Arctic Circle, Indonesia, or Montana, I'd still be making the same music ... the music that I want to make. Our aspirations are to make music that has the same sense of timelessness that Jobim, Bacharach, and Mancini have...."
Meanwhile, the band is already anticipating its next recording set, due in spring 2009. Wilkins predicts it will be a notch up in terms of energy, while Moll describes it as further affirmation of the sonic stamp the Postmarks embellished on their debut.
"If I'm honest about the emotions I try to have our music contain, then I think that translates to the listener," he says. "Nothing is more rewarding than receiving mail from people all around the world thanking you for the music you make. It's not about the sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It's about touching people in a heartfelt way and hopefully leaving behind something transcendent."
But the plaudits are never permanent, Yehezkely adds. "It's like a drug, and it wears off. One moment, you're getting tons of attention; the next, you are invisible, as you put your nose back to the grindstone. Actually I tend to enjoy the grindstone part of it more."