Album in hand, Suicide Dolls find their fit back home

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As far as they were concerned, Michelle Montavon and Brian Albano weren't aware of any sort of New London music scene when they set out, in the mid '90s, to start a noise rock band. Sure, there were the Reducers - nationally known rock royalty - and there was the iconic live venue, the El 'n' Gee Club, where the typical bill seemed to involve bands from somewhere else who actually rode around in tour buses.

As such, the pair, who are married and have been dating since their days at New London High School, resolutely hit the road. Under a succession of names and with a succession of drummers, they tried such accessible musical pastures like Chicago and then Providence.

When the word started filtering out to them that, suddenly, there WAS a lot happening in New London, they scampered back to the Whaling City - and then had to spend a few years figuring out how to fit in.

"It was weird because we had to break into our own hometown," Montavon says. "We were, like, 'Where were you guys all our lives? If we'd known you were here, we'd have never left!'"

The Dolls perform tonight as part of the Hygienic Art Festival's Rock Fix in the Crocker House Ballroom. Also playing are Herff Jones, the Hempsteadys, the 'Mericans, Daphne Lee Martin & Raise the Rent, Recur Occurrence and the Can Kickers.

"When we got back to town," Albano says, "we were like cousins at the side of the family picnic. No one's sitting with us. But we started hanging around and seeing and learning about all these great bands. And we thought, hey, we've fit in everywhere we've gone. We can easily absorb a scene and we'll just fill in the blanks."

In 2002, they changed their name to the Suicide Dolls, shifted direction from the expansive noise rock style, and began writing songs in an evolving and concise format that combined punk, pop and rock elements.

"It took us a while," Albano says. "New London's a weird scene: a lot pour in, but it filters down to who's trying to do something current and relevant. It became a game of numbers where we learned the history. And, by sticking at it, we got filtered in ourselves."

The process of learning about the New London scene, in other words, helped the Suicide Dolls develop their own persona - and of course they ultimately became integral members.

And, in 2006, when Covey came onboard, all the elements and chemistry were in place. An East Lyme native, he brought extensive experience and virtuosity ranging from the precision-ska of locals the Hempsteadys to international tours with Metal Blade recording artists Shai Hulud.

Now, all three musicians are sitting in a rehearsal space in downtown New London, talking about the musical circus rides that comprise their experiences. The three are thoughtfully energetic in conversation, often stepping on each other's sentences in the fashion of folks who can't get their thoughts out quickly enough - and who crack each other up every time it happens.

There is plenty of reason to be excited. After their style and songbook organically coalesced over the years and gigs, they've finally dropped their debut album. "Prayers in the Parking Lot" premiered in early December and was officially released in January. Co-produced by the band with Northampton studio legend Justin Pizzoferrato (Dinosaur Jr., the Hold Steady, Sonic Youth), the CD is a molten comet - beautifully (and loudly) capturing the aggressive layers of the band's sound.

"Well, the music is sort of hard to describe," Albano says. "The rockers find us punk. The punkers find us rockers. The noisers think we're pop - and the pop think we're noisers."

Montavon and Covey digest their bandmate's sonic analysis, then simultaneously offer this comment: "'Noisers'?!"

Perhaps Albano is inventing a hip new term for a rock style, but, still, his is a fairly apt description of the songs and live energy presented by the Suicide Dolls. There is a volume and aggression to the band that suggests Motorhead by way of J. Mascis, but skewed by (snarling) lyrical eloquence and a dash of the sort of maple-rich melody you'd get from Bob Mould or the Foo Fighters.

Tunes such as "Senses," "Drive," "Candy," the exhilarating "Smash," and the infectiously paranoid "Eye" (see Song Spinner) are emblematic of a confident, vibrant band operating at full throttle. And it doesn't take many listens to acknoweldge their quickly identifiable sound.

"It's funny where we're at," Montavon says. "I think we're too poppy for the really dark bands, but there's a point to what we're doing. There's a place for dancing and happy music and it's huge, but there's also a place for music that channels what's going on in the world in dark times. It's not a happy time right now."

Albano adds, "I think if you're going to make music that's the life of the party, then you're also going to have to put in a dash of the end of the party - any minute now."

By last year, armed with a sizable collection of good material and a touring circuit, the Dolls knew they had reached a certain plateau: they'd taken it about as far as they could go without having an album to promote.

"We'd played live for years with no recording," Montavon says. "We'd send out songs to get booked and say, 'We know the recordings suck, but book us anyway because we're much better live.' So we'd reached the point where we had to have a recording that represented us."

As for working with Pizzoferrato, they knew his reputation not just because he'd produced so many of their heroes, but also because they'd gotten to know him a bit from frequent gigs in Northampton. After increasing correspondence, he agreed to work with the band, and a series of sessions took place at the renowned Q Division Studios in Somerville, Mass. Though on a tight budget - the entire recording and mixing process took place in six days - the efforts paid off superbly.

"The CD was the next step. All we've ever tried to do is work really hard at this," Montavon says. "If work ethic and a resume are worth anything, we know we deserve to move up a level or two."

IF YOU GO

What: Hygienic Rock Fix

Who: The Hempsteadys, the Suicide Dolls, Recur Occurrence, Daphne Lee Martin & Raise the Rent, Herff Jones, the 'Mericans, and the Can Kickers

When: 7 p.m.-midnight tonight

Where: Crocker House Ballroom, 35 Union St., New London

How much: Donations accepted

For more information: (860) 857-6337, hygienic.org

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