The Shiny, Timeless Pop of Tchotchke

There’s a strong classic pop sensibility running through the songs on Tchotchke, the self-titled debut album by the New York City trio. The three musicians admit as much. “I grew up on a lot of classic rock,” says guitarist Emily Tooraen. Though the lead vocals of drummer Anastasia Sanchez might not suggest it, her formative influences are harder-edged. “Everything heavy,” she says. That was balanced by her mom’s taste for goth and new wave. Growing up in Los Angeles, she was immersed in the music of the city’s up-and-coming bands.

Bassist Eva Chambers came up in a musical family. “When we were kids, we had an all-girl band,” she says. “We’d cover The Go-Go’s, MC5 and the Beatles.” She says that the mix of inspirations “drilled in my wanting to create really satisfying melodies and chord progressions.” That, she surmises, helps explain where Tchotchtke’s pop sound comes from.

Chambers and Sanchez played together previously in Pinky Pinky, an L.A. band that traded in a kind of psychedelic-progressive garage sound. Tchotchke’s music represents a bold leap forward, with greater nuance and care put into the songwriting. Chambers explains the Tchotchke approach to songwriting: “Let’s sit down at the piano and really work through these arrangements and parts.”

The album blows by in a brief half hour; Tchotchke places a higher value on quality than quantity. “Come On, Sean” has a sophisticated, art-pop character that might call to mind Jellyfish, or even the Beatles’s psychedelic and carnivalesque “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Chambers agrees, describing the song as “theatrical.” She says that with that and a couple of other songs on Tchotchke, the group “wanted to get a little more ambitious with the arrangements.”

Elsewhere, “What Should I Do?” has a bouncy character that recalls Harry Nilsson and Van Dyke Parks at their best. Sanchez displays a thrilling and seemingly effortless vocal ability, soaring to the highest notes one moment, and swooping back down to Earth the next.

Sanchez comes by her vocal prowess naturally; she claims to have had no formal training. “But weren’t you in choir?” Chambers teases. “Yeah,” Sanchez admits. “But I didn’t take it seriously.” She says that while she has been singing all of her life, “I was just making up silly songs and singing as a joke.”

Tchotchke’s sound balances the economical approach of a punk trio with a sophisticated, finely-tuned art-pop sound. The intricate arrangements are never over-wrought; instead they combine exuberance and intelligence, all wrapped in ear-candy melodies. Spotlight track “Wish You Were a Girl” sports an irresistible melody, full of creamy vocal harmonies and an insistent beat.

Tchotchke was aided in the studio side of its musical pursuits by The Lemon Twigs’ Brian and Michael D’Addario, who handled engineering and production on the album. The brothers also helped out with the brilliant string and horn arrangements.

Brian D’Addario’s skill in the studio came in handy when the group’s creativity threatened to outpace the tools they had at hand. Chambers recalls the recording of the string parts on “Come On, Sean.” The arrangement called for a violin, but nobody had one. “So Brian did it himself on the cello, and then he used the tape machine to speed it up to make it sound like a violin.” Later in the sessions, an actual violinist was brought in to add to the recording. “But you can still hear some of Brian’s sped-up cello in there,” Chambers says.

The new album is clearly the product of a great deal of care and effort, applied in the Lemon Twigs’ home studio. “We didn’t even have a clear idea of how it would come out or what we wanted each of the songs to sound like,” Chambers says. “We just kept adding a lot of stuff to them.”

Live and onstage, Tchotchke takes a more streamlined approach to the songs. “When you come to the show, you do get a different rendition of each song,” Chambers says, “stripped down to the three-piece.” She admits that initially she was nervous how the trio would sound onstage. “But I think we surprised ourselves,” she says. “I sing lead, and Emily and Eva sing backup,” Sanchez points out. “So the big, recorded songs come to life” onstage.

Though the band has been together for a very short time, Tchotchke has quickly caught the notice of some select individuals who now count themselves as fans. Jason Falkner – acclaimed for his solo work as well as his tenures in Jellyfish and in touring bands backing Air, Beck and others – is one of those. “He reached out and said, ‘Oh, I love “Don’t Hang Up On Me,”’” says Chambers. As it happens, Tchotchke has a connection to Falkner, one he might not have known. “We actually recorded the album on his old board that Brian and Michael bought from him,” she says.

It’s still early days for Tchotchke, but the group is focused on the future. “We didn’t even have a band name when we recorded the album,” says Chambers, noting that Tooraen joined after the songs were written. Now, the three musicians are already hard at work writing songs for the next record. “Emily’s going to be able to weigh in more on the songs,” says Sanchez. “The three of us can collaborate more.” In the meantime, the three women of Tchotchke can tour in support of their stellar debut, easily one of the finest pop records of this year.