By Billy Manes
PUBLISHED: OCTOBER 17, 2012
It isn't exactly the stained-and-veined decrepitude of the old Hotel Chelsea in New York, but singer Kaleigh Baker's pseudo-suburban domicile just off Chelsea Street in the Audubon Park neighborhood will do for tonight. A row of CDs propped up by two empty Jack Daniel's bottles lines a shelf on the wall, while artistic renditions of Miles Davis and, more locally, Swamburger (looking here like a cross between Fu Manchu and Charles Manson), stare with approval from their respective frames. Two dogs – one named Bird after Charlie Parker, the other simply called Jazz – pick their way around the wires and amplifiers, trying to find their place, often at the feet of Baker herself, amid the rehearsal space. "Glass of wine?" Baker swishes out of the kitchen and past a plate of salami and cheese.
Baker's right-hand man, keyboardist and saxophone player Nate Anderson, is talking about doors – not the Jim Morrison kind, but the thick, quality ones that can block out the late-night thumps of a makeshift home studio. "I just want a big one that I can slam," offers Baker with a cackle.
"All right. Time for business," guitarist Jeff Nolan says as he rises from fiddling with his amp. Well, not just yet. First, there's an impromptu rip through "You Sexy Thing" with the rhythm wall of bassist Erin Nolan and drummer Chris LeBrane to contend with.
The real business of 25-year-old Kaleigh Baker, now souped up with a steady four-piece band referred to as "NEM" (which could mean either neuro-electrical magnetic machine or a colloquial take on them, to hear NEM tell it), is that towering inferno of a voice. If you've heard it, you know it: the spine-climbing ache of a howl alternating with a recoiling growl that seems to knock your heart to the ground and Baker's eyes into a witch's trance. It's the stuff of revivalist snake dances or moonlit strange fruit, depending on the side of the mood you've wandered into. You can never be too sure. Nor can Baker.
"I'm constantly adding new tools to my Swiss Army knife, and that's where the nerves come in," she says. Like on one of the band's new tracks, "Mourning Mail," a rolling and soaring lament that travels up to a cockeyed heaven and right back down screaming to the bottom of a bottle. "I just, for the first time, surpassed four octaves," she says. "Sometimes I hit that note and sometimes I don't, and every time before I hit that note, I'm like, 'Oh, sweet Jesus.' I feel like I'm going to push everything out of every orifice."
Baker's raw, almost carnal approach to emotional bloodletting has won her an impressive following in Central Florida and all the way up the East Coast (she estimates that she's played more than 100 shows this year). Her sepia-toned C.V. boasts a who's who of collaborators, including members of Shak Nasti, Sam Rivers' Rivbea Orchestra and just about any other of the reputable usual suspects cramping corners in Orlando's grind-until-it-hurts rhythmic blues undercurrent. Last year, she released her first EP, The Weight of It All, with producer and engineer Justin Beckler, winning her none-too-subtle plaudits like "a legend in the making" from this very publication. That legend has only grown with the advent of NEM; the band has kicked a brightness and dimension into the caustic croon of her self-professed Irish temper. "I'm a big, happy sponge," she says, without the smile it might imply. "You can use me to sop up the biggest mess or the best wine. I'm everywhere; I'm everywhere and in between. Since I met these guys, I've gotten a lot of rock & roll in me."
By "these guys," she's mostly referring to NEM's Jeff and Erin Nolan, Orlando's own power-chord couple – she of the Little Debbies and Potsie, and he of too many bands to count, dating back to I Love You in the late '80s. The Nolans were enough to lure Baker and Anderson back to Orlando after a seven-month relocation to New York City, where Anderson scored studio time for the two of them by building "acoustic treatments" for music hounds. Baker, who hails from western New York, wasn't completely taken by the Manhattan transfer.
"It was a good spot to get our name out and meet some people," she says. "We did some groundwork up there that is going to end up benefiting us, but it's all about the band and we came back."
The band's newest addition, LeBrane, completed the stylistic puzzle after a short round of auditions, and Baker's next chapter was born. You can hear the beginnings of the full-throttle assault in the new collaborative tracks: "Shoot Down" bounces with a pinup-in-a-biker-bar psychosis replete with call-and-response backup chants and hand claps climbing atop surf-punk keyboard punches; "Devil's Advocate" shapeshifts into a downcast soup of minor-key, horn-fed dissonance befitting its "Hollywood," "nothing's for free" insinuations. Every song has its own yarn to spin and mood to make or break.
"Everybody in this band has a musical preference," Erin Nolan explains. "Jeff likes Motorhead, Chris and I love Prince. I love hip-hop. Nate likes jazz. Everybody has their thing and it's kind of incorporated all over the place."
"We hit a club or something, there's five of us," Jeff Nolan adds. "We show up with a horn, five vocals, two keyboards and a rubber chicken [Ed: It makes screaming noises]. There's a lot to balance here. I've been in groups that have a lot of elements going on and it trainwrecks often in a club. This band has yet to trainwreck in a club for a technical reason. Yet."
But what about on record? So far, Baker and NEM have worked up 20 new songs for an alleged 10-track CD to be released early next year, but for now they're sidestepping traditional rack-job impulses in favor of more compulsive marketing strategies. Baker hopes that by releasing songs online – first via a few scalding live performances they've already recorded with web-minded DeLand