The name of the new Alacartoona recording is “Fantoche,” a French and Spanish word for “puppet” or someone being influenced.
“All the stories are about being a puppet of things you have no control over,” said Christian Hankel, who plays the role of Providence Forge in the four-piece rock/folk/cabaret quartet.
“Or in one case, the puppeteer,” said Erin McGrane (Ruby Falls), “and how the puppeteer can also be manipulated. Some of the people in these stories know they’re manipulating or being manipulated, and some don’t.”
Themes of control are germane to this 9-year-old band known for taking its audiences on theatrical odysseys to other times and places through its music narratives and its fictitious characters. And control, at least, applies to Alacartoona’s recent history and how it managed to withstand and survive the issues that often torpedo a band, from personal changes to personnel changes.
Friday night, Alacartoona will celebrate the release of “Fantoche” at a show that is sold out. It will be the band’s first public show in nearly a year. It also signifies the revival of a band that, just two years ago, executed one of the more ambitious years in any local band’s history — including theatrical performances, “Night Is the Mirror” and “Bought and Souled,” a film premiere and the release of a DVD.
And despite its title and themes, “Fantoche” represents another direction for a band that has managed to forge its own course while indulging in plenty of adventure and risk.The songs on “Fantoche” are not new. They were in the band’s songbook last year when Hankel, McGrane and the other two members of the band, Kyle Dahlquist (Overton Wooldridge) and Sergio Moreno (Billings Marland), decided it was time to make a new recording. The band had been on hiatus as it caught its breath from that busy 2009. Members joined other music projects and navigated some personal turbulence, such as career changes and the end of marriages.
While the songs aren’t new, the intent behind “Fantoche” is. Unlike previous recordings, its direction was away from the feel of a live show and directly toward something much more atmospheric, much more produced.
“Our live sound has been well documented,” McGrane said. “We wanted to do something not so bare bones. We wanted more production and layers.”
“We wanted to make a real studio album,” Hankel said. “So we picked songs not necessarily for the stories they told; we wanted them to have the same feel and atmosphere.”
The album was produced by Money Wolf, a duo comprising Justin Penney and Tommy Donoho, Hankel’s bandmate in the Hillary Watts Riot. It’s the first Alacartoona studio album since “Songs From the Show,” released in 2005. It was also the first recording with Dahlquist, who joined the band in 2009, replacing Steve Morse on accordion, and Moreno, who joined in mid-2011, replacing drummer Gregg Jackson, McGrane’s former spouse.
This version of Alacartoona is relatively new, having played together for only four or five shows, McGrane estimated. But things meshed nicely and Dahlquist, especially, revealed some new facets.
“Kyle really stretched out,” McGrane said. “He plays trombone, accordion and lap steel. And he sings — he has a beautiful voice. And he wrote two songs.”
The studio approach required some adjustment, he said.
“It was a challenge,” Dahlquist said. “Generally, music is about creating spaces. It’s about what you’re not playing, what you’re not doing. This was fun. It was a challenge to go into the studio and make a more in-depth record and to figure out how to expand the sonic palate and add more underneath but maintain that sense of space.”
Like his three fellow band members, Dahlquist is in other music projects, including Mr. Marco’s V7. McGrane is in the antique-pop duo Victor and Penny. Hankel is in Monacle. Moreno is in Sexy Accident. Hankel and Moreno are in Hilary Watts Riot.
Moreno said drumming for Alacartoona is a challenge.
“It’s absolutely a very different approach,” he said. “I play a cocktail drum kit, so I’m standing, which makes for a different dynamic. I feel more integrated in the band. I like the theatricality of it all, the concept.”
“Sergio is a trained jazz bassist,” Hankel said. “He’s very musically minded and he has a unique approach to the drums. He comes up with interesting and fresh suggestions, like, ‘We do it this way every time. Why don’t we try this?’ ”
“Fantoche” was put together mostly piecemeal from late December to late July. The band was rarely assembled as one, primarily because McGrane was touring heavily with Jeff Freling, her partner in Victor and Penny, and Dahlquist was on the road constantly with his wife, Chris Dahlquist, a mixed-media artist. It was a process new to all.
“We did the initial, basic recording in two days,” McGrane said. “That was the only time we were all together. After that it was overdubs in small groups or individually. You’d go in, record something, then go away.”
“I’ve never recorded like this,” Hankel said. “We recorded in spurts. It was frustrating at times, but somehow we made it all work. Justin was the glue who held it all together.”
The studio was Donoho’s West Plaza home.
“It has great sound,” McGrane said. “It’s like 100 years old, lots of hardwood.”
Donoho asked the band if Money Wolf could produce the record because “they hadn’t really put out a proper ‘studio’ album.”
“We wanted each of the songs to tell a story — which meant we had to treat each as its own idea,” he said. “I think that really (helped create) the sound people are going to hear. Some of the songs feel as though the band is on stage performing for you; others really feel like you’re in the midst of the story they’re telling. It was a great process.”
Penney described the setup for the basic tracks: “We ended up with Sergio in the living room and Kyle in the kitchen. Christian and Erin were in the dining/control room. There’s very little isolation of each instrument from those basic tracks. This really makes it sound like a band in one place, because it is, but it does limit some things that can be done during editing.”
Both he and the band were open to experimenting and letting the songs help dictate the mood, he said, as in the recording of the song “Where’d You get That.”
“That song was completely re-invented in the studio,” he said. “Christian and Erin sat on the stairs to rehearse the song and something about the way they were positioned just clicked. I move a few microphones in place to get some more detail than the room mic was picking up and started recording their rehearsal. After a few run-throughs it was clear that this really fit the concept of the song.
“After the initial recording we had a few more sessions adding vocals and various overdubs of percussion, guitar, and synthesizer. Then we moved to mixing, which at first glance seemed like a monster of a chore. In practice, the songs exuded their mood in a way that they kind of mixed themselves.”
When Alacartoona takes these songs out live, audiences won’t hear all those layers and effects and studio atmospherics. They will hear some differences in the band, however, like more three-part vocals, now that Dahlquist is singing more. His accordion playing has also changed.
“It’s more percussive,” he said, “almost like a (Hammond) B3.”
Hankel said his time in the Hillary Watts Riot beside Donoho has had a big effect on him.
“Tommy is such an adventurous guitar player,” he said. “His explosions of colored sound have had had a big impact on me.”
And McGrane said all those gigs with Victor and Penny, plus her study of music theory, have seasoned her.
“I’m a much better all-around musician and singer,” she said. “You can’t do 100 shows in a year and not improve.”
Audiences may see an improved Alacartoona, but it also will be a familiar one.
“We can’t replicate the album live onstage,” she said. “That will be a surprise when they take it home. But the live show will be the Alacartoona our fans know and love.”
And that would be the one that cajoles and seduces — manipulates, you might say — its audiences into its dramas and thrall, but with no strings attached.
Alacartoona performs at 8 p.m. Friday at Nica’s 320. The show is sold out. The group has three other shows scheduled through the end of the year: Oct. 13 at the Kill Devil Club, 61 E. 14th St.; Nov. 15 at Le Fou Frog, 400 E. Fifth St.; and Dec. 22 at Californos, 4124 Pennsylvania Ave.