The children of the '90s have grown up. Tuning in to Cartoon Network, you can tell that the kids who were inundated by the metered insanity of Ren & Stimpy are now getting paid to illustrate their own adult jokes woven throughout after-school time slots; you can sell a million copies of a video game that looks like it is housed in an SNES cartridge with 16-bit graphics. As for bands, a lot is being said of a '90s "revival." In the best cases, it's an evolution of sounds from back when "alternative" was a valid description for what is apparently now just classic rock. Nashville's Bully, for example, exemplifies what was so anthemic of mainstream radio rock while injecting a modern sense of seething irony that delivers something ferocious and contemporary.
On Flowers & Bones—the debut EP from Santa Fe's Ten Ten Division—the sound of the '90s is definitely present, but it satisfies when breaking away from those echoes of the past, which largely occur on its back half. It's the sound of a band trying to figure out where they are as collaborators and on the greater timeline of rock music.
Bones kicks off with "Run," a tune that checks every box you'd expect from a band claiming '90s alterna-rock songstress Liz Phair as a major influence.
Primary songwriter and singer Vonnie Kyle's vocals are isolated in the mix here, booming out ahead of the instrumentation as she jumps through vocal acrobatics with a theatrical throatiness. The players are capable, the song is solid and, as an opener to the six-song collection, it meets expectations rather than exceeds them.
The first time our ears perk up comes on the title track and its follow-up "Puerto Rico." These songs feel like outliers when speaking to Kyle, and both complicate the studio formula Ten Ten Division has set for itself. "Flowers & Bones" is the only track of the six that has no layered backing vocals and was recorded live—even at the risk of bleeding onto the instrumental tracks. Before then, "It just wasn't coming together," Kyle tells SFR. "That one is, vocally, more soulful." It pays off to let those vocals fly on their own.
"Puerto Rico" delivers even further, adding a classic 1960s girl-group rhythm complete with a doo-wop style for one of the more vibrant moments on the EP.
"That's the weird one," Kyle explains. "When I started writing the vocals on it, all the layers of background vocals, there's almost this underlying Motown vibe to it."
Kyle is indeed a prolific songwriter, and Ten Ten Division is built on the blueprints of her lyrics and melodies. That can be for better or worse in a band, and she has smartly surrounded herself with a lot of local talent, including multi-instrumentalist and recording wiz David Badstubner on drums, stalwart guitarist Dan Mench-Thurlow, and Dylan Blanchard (of Future Scars and his own project, Blanchard) on bass and organ. These members help highlight the songwriting by collaborating and building on it, and the music is at its best when it steers into unexpected corners. Kyle as a singer further shapes the songs, too, creating new opportunities for harmonies and that help to circumvent cliches of the era and genre.
"That's really my favorite part of recording—layering in lots of vocals," says Kyle.
On the strong closer "Bird's Eye View," you can hear that passion.
Ultimately, Ten Ten Division has made a competent first step with Flower & Bones, offering up a promise that will hopefully be delivered upon more fully with the band's upcoming debut full-length. Hopefully they grow more comfortable with their odder impulses and break away from traditions as often as they embrace them.
Ten Ten Division with Red Light Cameras and Free Range Buddhas
7 pm Thursday Oct. 18. Free.
Tumbleroot Brewery and Distillery,
2791 Agua Fría St.