Emily Ritz's speaking voice is a few pitches higher than her singing voice, but otherwise the two are uncannily similar: trembling and raspy, but steel-wool-coarse around the edges. Offstage, she has the veneer of being a wallflower or a recluse, speaking quietly, carefully parsing words, and avoiding eye contact — a 2008 YouTube video called "Emily Sings the Blues with Cough Syrup" shows Ritz soliloquizing about honey at a farmers' market, but barely addressing the camera. In performance, though, she's commanding.
When Ritz took the stage at Swedish American Hall in February, she wore a long pencil skirt and a fashionable bob haircut, and swayed sensuously as she sang the lyrics to "Take Me," a love song that sounds like a plea. Behind her sat members of DRMS (pronounced "dreams"), the eight-piece, Oakland-based ensemble that Ritz fronts with keyboardist Rob Shelton. Playing a strange battery of instruments — Rhodes, lap steel guitar, a bag filled with bottle caps, sandpaper wood blocks, vibraphone, and a metal cake mold — the band members plunked out a breezy, cantering vamp as Ritz implored an absent lover: Take me like a storm/Hold me in your eye. On the last line, she seemed to have a change of heart: Don't let me slow you down, Ritz simpered.
Such lines lend character to DRMS, allowing it to bring a hip sensibility to music that bears a remarkable level of scholarship. Launched roughly a year ago, it's given Shelton a small star turn on college radio, while rendering Ritz a reluctant diva. The two of them met at local open mics and began collaborating in 2008, but only recently found a meeting point for both their artistic strengths. Their band combines influences from jazz, world, melodic rock, and even Afro-pop, a mix that sounds frightening on paper but works well when paired with Ritz' lushly textured vocals. Shelton's crowning achievement is that he manages to make complex music sound like conventional indie pop. He seemed embarrassed when asked to list all the instruments he deploys onstage: "Totally ridiculous when you write it out," Shelton wrote in an email, with a self-effacing smiley face.
Ridiculous or not, DRMS has cultivated a fanbase, hitting number seven on KALX 90.7 FM's chart, and playing a spate of high-profile shows — the February gig was part of this year's Noise Pop festival, and the band held its June album-release party at the Rickshaw Stop. DRMS' self-titled debut comprises ten crisp, moody rock ballads whose addictive melodies belie their baroque orchestration.
In truth, both Ritz and Shelton have the credentials to make art music for the masses, namely because they both went to art school. Ritz grew up in upstate New York and studied painting and filmmaking at California College of the Arts. Shelton, who was raised in Menlo Park, earned his music degree at Hampshire College in Massachusetts — which he describes as one of those hippie, grade-less, "create-your-own-major" kind of schools. He took a three-hour lecture course with Yusef Lateef every Monday morning, during which students would call out shapes and the jazzman would "play" them on his saxophone. After that, he said almost all of his compositions had jazzy chord patterns and improvisational elements, even if they weren't "jazz" in the strict sense. He spent four months in Peru before joining forces with Ritz, and brought back a variety of folkloric instruments to foist on her: On the album, Ritz drums a quijada de burro (the jaw bone of a donkey) and clicks a pair of snail shells procured from the jungle in Ecuador.
Ostensibly, Ritz is more the self-taught dabbler and Shelton the trained musician, since she learned to sing by listening to Billie Holiday records and he took lessons for years. But they're equally important to the band's aesthetic. Ritz has one of those brittle, breathy, girly voices that have become prevalent in the indie pop world — her most obvious antecedents are Holiday, Fiona Apple, and Joanna Newsom. Shelton composes all the music and nearly all the lyrics, many of which are filched from his diaries. Much of the material on DRMS's first LP is stuff he'd written years ago, which is why they're steeped in a young man's pathos (sample line: Like a dog, wet from rain/Things just as they are, I'm coming back your way). He met Ritz through the local open-mic scene when they were about 25 and 20, respectively (they're now 29 and 24), and thought she had the right voice for his music.
The best thing about it, he said, is that it's not obviously beautiful. "You have to decide whether you like it or not," Shelton said. "A lot of my friends' parents who grew up in the Sixties don't like her voice, and I really love the fact that they don't like her voice." Ritz concurred that her warbly vocal intonation might seem like an odd thing to drape over Shelton's pretty, heavily detailed music. But she's also conscious of it being the main thing. "The Billie-Holiday thing makes sense to me because she's an influence," she explained, phoning from a house in Bolinas, where she's recording with her other band, Yesway. "I definitely think my voice is weirder and it's not as beautiful, or something."
Her fans would probably demur.