CHICAGO — Trying to describe Brigitte Calls Me Baby’s brand of rock can lead to musical comparisons rarely heard these days.
Roy Orbison fronting The Smiths wouldn’t be out of place, nor would The Strokes, but with Elvis. Simple Minds? Sure. INXS? It’s in the mix. A touch of old-school sock-hop? Absolutely.
The one throughline with any of those comparisons is BCMB’s vocals: Frontman Wes Leavins is a classical crooner of the highest order, someone equally at home channeling a 1950s torch song or grooving along with an upbeat shuffle straight from the early 2000s rock revival.
His voice has a retro-embracing, era-hopping quality that can make him seem like a man out of time; the reasons for that become clear once you learn the influences that shaped him as a young musician.
“In high school, you have the records or artists that blow your mind and change your life,” Leavins said. “And early on, you just think, ‘That’s what I wanna be.’ For me, in high school, it was Roy Orbison, The Cars. … I just wanted to sound like that.”
Leavins spoke to Block Club Chicago ahead of the band’s trip to the U.K. for the All Points East festival, where they’ll take the stage Friday, sharing the bill with the likes of The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and more.
You don’t hear many kids blasting Orbison these days, but the influence is readily apparent in Brigitte Calls Me Baby’s music. Combine that with the unusual route Leavins took to start the band, and his embrace of styles and sounds decidedly out of step with contemporary trends becomes even clearer.
“I was still in high school, and by chance I auditioned for a Broadway show. I didn’t have a passion for anything other than music, so I entertained the idea of this show about the history of Sun Records and thought, ‘We’ll see what happens, I better not drop out of high school or anything.’… A week later I was flown to New York, got the part of Elvis Presley and dropped out of high school,’” Leavins said.
After playing the King for six months, Leavins moved to Chicago, gradually found a group of like-minded musicians — drummer Jeremy Benshish, guitarists Trevor Lynch and Jack Fluegel and bassist/keyboardist Devin Wessels — and Brigitte Calls Me Baby was born.
The band quickly began working out material, with Leavins as the principal songwriter.
“It was very organic. I was pleasantly surprised at how it never felt forced,” Leavins said of the band’s musical kinship.
As anyone who’s seen the Brigitte Calls Me Baby live can attest, there’s a timeless vibe to the music that makes it feel as though they could’ve sprung, fully formed, from just about any era of the past 60 years of American pop music.
As frontman, Leavins naturally takes center stage, and he’s so comfortable embodying the role of a marquee crooner, it can seem at first blush like a pose — a guy who looks like Elvis Presley crossed with Robert Pattinson, making like he’s about to play The Ed Sullivan Show circa 1960.
But what makes the band work is how completely devoid of irony his performance remains: There’s no postmodern winking to the audience, no self-aware nods to let people know they’re above it all. It’s utterly earnest, and Leavins takes pains to keep it that way.
“Cutting through the sometimes-unnecessary gap that’s created from the desire to be self-aware, or cool, or whatever, is important,” Leavins said. “I have a lot of fears, things that I feel strongly about — and death being the great equalizer that it is, I feel an urgency to connect with people while I can. There’s a limited time to do that, and lyrically, I want to share those feelings.”
Plus, the deliberate embrace of retro and outré styles and looks has been part of Leavins’ method of self-expression long predating the band.
“Before I was really into music, I was into expression, and fashion was the easiest way to do that. So fashion, before music, as early as middle school, I was really into that — into crafting looks,” he said. “I used to write thoughts on shirts and wear T-shirts with that thought on it. Suddenly that became a vessel for writing songs. … ‘The Future Is Our Way Out’ is a song that started as a thought I had written on a T-shirt.”
Ultimately, all of those influences, inspirations and ideas were applied to Brigitte Calls Me Baby. The results speak for themselves on the band’s EP “This House Is Made Of Corners.”
The mournful wail of “Eddie My Love” is like a torch song by Elvis if he was in the throes of his first male crush. “Impressively Average” is another Leavins tour de force as he bolts head-first into an all-consuming romance, fueled by the fearless ferocity of the band’s melody line. Dreamy synths and the jangly guitar in “Palm Of Your Hand” sound like a John Hughes movie soundtrack.
Leavins and his band sometimes sound like nothing so much as a sentient jukebox, chock full of long-lost radio singles from pop music’s past — leading to a vibrant musical future that feels comfortingly familiar.
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