That local rock four-piece Plainclothes Tracy is just now issuing its first self-titled CD—after four years, several studios, and three versions of the final product—might smack of perfectionism. The members of the band deny all charges, copping only to a little indecisiveness.
"All musicians can be a little wishy-washy," says lead singer Kym Hawkins. "And when it comes to a final product, we want it to be something we can stand behind."
The band's origins are decidedly ordinary, having more to do with connections and happenstance than any shared musical affinities. Core members Hawkins and drummer Eric Grass were recruited by another guitar player for a punk-pop outfit several years ago. "I wish it was something magical, but we just wanted to be playing music at the time," Grass says.
But when that band fell apart, Grass and Hawkins kept working together. "Eric and I are really familiar with each other's songwriting process," says Hawkins. Adds Grass, "We enjoy what we do. We're like siblings now."
Early on, they added bassist Trey Trowbridge, who also stuck, finding some of the simpatico the unit was lacking. Several lead guitar players ensued, most recently Brian Kelly, whom Hawkins feels is the best fit yet.
The name Plainclothes Tracy comes from the original title of what later became the Dick Tracy comic strip.
"To us it was kind of funny," says Hawkins. "It sounds like a girl who dresses kind of plain, but it's really a hard-assed detective."
If Plainclothes Tracy got its start, in some sense, in punk-pop, it's come a long way since. The songs on the new CD are heady, ruminative, sometimes with just a hint of folk, mindful of both '90s indie and so-called adult alternative.
Hawkins—whose mother is Karen Hawkins, a New York Times best-selling author of historical romances—is the centerpiece of it all. Her clever wordplay and her performance chops make simple songs indelible.
Take the disc's lead-off track, "Fort Knox Graffiti," a song about the strange little things you notice when you're falling in love with someone. Hawkins' breathy verse falls somewhere between a rap and stream-of-consciousness, with all kinds of been-there-done-that flotsam popping in and out of her run-on verbal flow.
Tellingly, Hawkins says she was affected by poets as much as by songwriters, particularly Elizabeth Bishop and A.E. Houseman. "I like people who have a rhythm to their poetry," she says. "I like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. And I love Ella Fitzgerald. But in the musical spectrum, as far as what we're doing, we're just trying to write music that has meaning, and that takes people to a happy place."
But it wouldn't be fair to say Plainclothes Tracy is entirely removed from its punk-pop roots. What it's kept from that music is a certain directness and concise structure. And while Tracy has, and has had, players capable of going off on solo tangents, the band is more interested in coloring inside the lines.
"I've always been intrigued by the simpleness of the Blink-182 bass player," says Trowbridge. "That's what we want to do in the sense that we want to make tight, straightforward, good songs. We're not in a jazz band. We're not in a battle. And that's inspirational to me."
Silent for most of this interview, Trowbridge suddenly comes to life when we start talking the nuts and bolts of songs; it turns out he has strong opinions about certain bands, and the music they play.
"When people come to see us, I want them to come away saying, ‘Oh, it's not another bar band'," Trowbridge says. "Because a lot of bar bands just sound the same. I want them to think they're heard something that's actually different for a change."
Hawkins adds, "I'd like them to come away saying, ‘Hey, do you guys have a CD?'"