VIDEO: Casey Desmond, "Save Me Now" (from No Disguise)
Lots of kids grow up on Yanni and Barney; Casey Desmond grew up on the Residents and the Bentmen. Both of those oddball, theatrical bands were on heavy rotation in her household — particularly the latter Boston band, whose founders, Bill and Katherine Desmond, are her parents. “I basically grew up in the Sound Museum [her parents’ Brighton studio], with instruments and music all around my house,” she recalls over coffee at the Middle East. “I never thought the Bentmen sounded weird because, well, that was my family. I only realized it was different when I played them to my friends and they got a little frightened.”
Desmond tends to get stereotyped as one of those cute teenage popsters — in part because she’s, well, cute and teenage (or was teenage until recently: she made her first album at 17 and has now turned 20). “My music is a lot on the prettier side, but I think I took a lot of the Bentmen with me.” And she flinches a bit when Avril Lavigne is brought up. “You’ve referenced some of the really poppy, mainstream people out there. And that’s fine. I love pop rock — I like dance music, too. But I like there to be a little kink, a little spice to it. I like to convey emotion — that’s where my art comes from. People don’t need to like it, but they need to understand that it’s not phony.”
Desmond’s just-released sophomore disc, No Disguise (Sound Museum), is very much a pop record, and there’s no shame in that. And though the disc is polished and mainstream by Boston standards, with its dark shades and sophisticated arrangements, it would still stand out as one of the more adventurous things on the radio. The kinks and the twists she mentions may not be obvious, but they’re there. She points to the midpoint rocker, “Save Me Now,” as an example of her slightly twisted sense of humor. “It’s totally sarcastic, since it’s such an over-the-top, ‘woe is me’ kind of song.” True enough, but it comes across like an emotive, straight-ahead pop song. And its opening verse, with lyrics sung-spoken over a percussive acoustic guitar, bears out one of Desmond’s less obvious influences, Ani DiFranco.
One thing Desmond can do that current teen-popsters apparently can’t is sing on a record. (I’m serious: listen to Avril Lavigne’s new album long enough and you’re apt to forget what an undoctored, non-Auto-Tuned singing voice sounds like.) Her vocals on the disc sound natural, and I’ve heard her do the trickier numbers live — like “Julia Butterfly Hill,” which includes some operatic high-register leaps. “Julia” is the true story of an environmental protester who spent a year living in a tree, but Desmond’s song is lovely and almost epic-sounding, not your typical protest song. “I had to do that one because I’m kind of a ‘hippie,’ ” she says, gesturing to put the last word in quotations. “Far as the singing goes — well, I hope I’m really singing, because that’s what I do. There are people out there who get caught up in making it sound marketable, and so a lot of their own vocal beauty gets lost. But I think people would rather hear the emotion being conveyed, and I don’t think the people who support me would be doing so if I couldn’t sing.”