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Music Preview:Last Town Chorus sings a haunting song

Friday, January 31, 2003

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Last year on Sept. 11, Megan Hickey brought her lap steel back to Pittsburgh for a vigil at the Quiet Storm, and by the time her first song ended, she'd completely mesmerized her former hometown crowd with a haunting blend of old-school country sounds and highly processed New Wave sensibilities, at times recalling Jimmy Page, but sexier and not so freaking loud.

Tonight, she's back in town to celebrate the every-bit-as-mesmerizing recording debut of the Last Town Chorus, a Brooklyn-based duo that's frequently joined on stage -- and in the studio -- by friends, including fellow Pittsburgh transplant, Brooklyn's own Greg Hoy.

Before she moved to Brooklyn back in '99, Hickey's only band experience had been an indie joke-pop band with Hoy. The group was called Mexican Power Trip and, as Hickey recalls, "We played our banner show at Pluto's, broke a pinata and did covers like 'Home Sweet Home' by Motley Crue."

Hickey sang and played bass, having gotten one for sixth-grade graduation some time earlier ("There's a picture of me," she recalls, "with this cheap little Harmony sunburst guitar and a pink graduation dress").

But Mexican Power Trip "was about as close as I got to being in a band and I can't explain why," she says. "I've always been a complete music freak and it took me until I was 27 and in a new city" to act on it.

It took the other full-time member of the Last Town Chorus, acoustic guitarist Nat Guy, to introduce her to the lap steel.

"I actually heard the sound I wanted before I knew how we were gonna make it," she says. "It just struck me one day in my living room. And then I met this guy and I thought I'd be playing bass or something and singing, but he brought along the lap steel as a lark and I picked it up and absolutely freaked out. I turned into Jimi Hendrix and started to write like crazy. It's a minor miracle. I can't really imagine writing on anything else now."

Not that she's the biggest lap steel fan you'd ever hope to meet.

"When I heard this music before I met the lap steel," she says, "I imagined -- the best way I could describe it was old-time country plus the Cocteau Twins -- layered, not over-produced but affected-sounding music. So sticking the old-timey lap steel into a delay pedal seemed like a natural thing to do. I can't even bear to listen to a lap steel without pedals. It sounds like a dying squirrel."

And there's really nothing dying squirrel-esque about the haunting lap steel sounds on Hickey's album.

Hoy produced the sessions, a process Hickey uses birthing imagery to talk about on no fewer than four occasions in the course of an interview that barely lasts 10 minutes.

"He took what was a rowdy little baby and slapped a diaper on it" is, for instance, what she has to say about the mastering of Gene Paul, an Atlantic Recording Studios veteran who's worked with everyone from Zeppelin and the Stones to Eric Clapton and the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

While he hasn't worked with Franklin or the Stones, Hoy proved a perfect fit for the recording process.

"We tried a big studio," Hickey says, "to demo some songs and realized that the songs were fragile and needed to simmer, you know? And Greg, he loved the songs from early on and understood us pretty well, so he was kind of like a midwife delivering babies, you know? He locked us in a room over several months until each song kind of came into being. He had a mobile recording setup and we set up in a room in Brooklyn and made it over the summertime."

Hoy will be joining the band onstage tonight at Club Cafe on organ, percussion and harmonies.

"He knows the music far too well from sitting in a room with us for months," says Hickey. "We wanted to strangle one another for a goodly part of the process, but it was like childbearing. Labor. It was pretty painful. But ultimately, pretty glorious. Some of the songs, we recorded two and three times. But I think it shows. It's a little imperfect journal entry -- what we sound like right now."

Ed Masley can be reached at emasley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1865.

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