There's a special place in this critic's heart for performers who realize they may never attain stardom but keep slugging away nonetheless. No goofy interviews with Joan Rivers (then) or Jon Stewart (now); no sipping cocktails with David Hasselhoff (then) or Simon Cowell (now); no yachting on the French Riviera. They just soldier on making music that's important to them and their small but devoted following. The list includes many a jazz and folk musician, singer-songwriters such as Evie Sands and Katy Moffatt, and rock bands like the Mekons and the East Bay's Naked Barbies.
For the past seventeen years that's right Naked Barbies have pursued their own brand of melodic rock 'n' roll, albeit not in the usual PR hyperbole sense. While many rock-alt-indie-whatever bands can be accurately summed up in blithe hipster terms sadcore, neo-psychedelic, progressive metal this band resists easy categorization.
Chuck Berry, mid-1960s Bob Dylan, Bobby Darin, pre-Rumours Fleetwood Mac, Patty Loveless, Dusty Springfield, and the Band are points of reference, the last being especially pertinent. It's not that Naked Barbies sound like the Band, but that they are like the Band, or the Mekons, whose wide variety of influences and inspirations are so well integrated into their unique styles, it's hard to tell where one leaves off and another begins. If you must categorize, imagine the mind of John Hiatt in Dusty Springfield's body with Elvis Costello's Attractions roaring in the background, or maybe the Band with Buffy Sainte-Marie as lead singer.
Singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter Patty Spiglanin was something of a late bloomer. Although she'd played guitar since age twelve, she didn't start in bands until her early twenties. After playing in various combos with fellow East Bay singer and guitarist Eve Decker, Spiglanin connected with drummer Dan Lashkoff and bassist Evan Eustis, the rhythm team from locals the Furlongs. With harmonica, accordion, and keys fellow Mike Conner, plus a rotating cast of lead guitarists, the Naked Barbie Dolls were born.
"Technically, there was a bass player before Evan," Spiglanin recalls. "Her name was Gretchen Zimmerman. Even though Gretchen was only with us a short time, I must say she was instrumental in us being called The Naked Barbie Dolls. She lived in a flat in the Lower Haight and her very strange roommate had naked Barbie dolls hanging from nooses all over his room. Somehow the image stuck in my head and really, off the top of my head, I said, 'Well, let's call ourselves the Naked Barbie Dolls.'"
Spiglanin lived to regret it: Asked how and when the band name evolved, she says, "One word: Mattel. When we signed our first record deal with an independent label called Weasel Disc, they were rightly concerned about big bad Mattel suing. We thought that by dropping the 'Dolls' we could avoid that. This was in 1994. Before then, we recorded a cassette called Bird Bath as the Naked Barbie Dolls."
Spiglanin's singing set the Barbies apart from all the riff-raff in the clubs and CD bins. She sings like an all-growed-up woman, not with a little-girl warble or bitch-goddess/wild-woman-out-of-control shriek. Winsomely reflective and never whiny, her voice is fiery-smooth as a good shot of whiskey, full of honky soul, like Tammy Wynette with the tiniest hints of Buffy Sainte-Marie's vibrato and jazz singer Helen Merrill's smoky cool. She has one of the more distinctive sets of pipes out there. This isn't to slight the other Barbies they're tight and focused as a band can be, professional but passionate.
Over their long career, the Barbies have released four albums five, if you count their incarnation as Vagabond Lovers. Spiglanin prefers you don't. "I hate that name. I hate that record," she says. Then she apologizes: "In fact, it's quite good. But it is certainly not my record. It was [producer] Dave McNair's record and the record company's and Michael Zapruder's (our lead guitarist at that time) record, but not mine." The band changed its name when it signed to Monarch, and changed it back when the label went the way of all flab.
Recently it looked as if it would all end. Earlier this year, drummer Lashkoff and his wife announced plans to relocate to upstate New York. Spiglanin commenced work on her first solo album. And the others had real jobs and real families. The Barbies went on indefinite hiatus.
They couldn't sustain it, though. Struggling to perfect her song "Back on You" using a drum machine, the singer invited her old bandmates into a Berkeley studio for an afternoon. Not only did they nail the new song, but before long, they had a whole album. Most of the songs were done in one or two takes, and Spiglanin's vocals took on a sumptuous bluesy tone. The session will be the Barbies' first album in seven years, released on their own NBD label. It's appropriately titled Stay Naked, and it rocks, too. "It felt like comin' home," she says. "The playing was on an instinctive level, as if we were a living, breathing thing."
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