The Penguins’ 1954 hit single “Earth Angel” is one of the most innocent-sounding love songs ever written. With its unadorned songwriting, the doo-wop ballad has resonated across generations as an enduring emblem of romance.
But the simplicity and timelessness of “Earth Angel” are exactly what makes the song so unsettling. Upon repeat listens, the spell dissipates. The scratchy, bleating vocals grow unnerving. You have to wonder if there is something darker underneath.
No wonder the song is such a big influence on Minneapolis dream pop band No Kim.
“That’s a beautiful place in music history,” says guitarist Chris White. “I love something that’s simple. That’s why I’m drawn to that era of song and that style of storytelling. You’re choosing the words very carefully. Those songs had so few words.”
White and vocalist Tess Weinberg both point to Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” and the decreasingly comforting refrain of “I’ve got your picture” as a perfect example of what they wanted to accomplish with No Kim.
“There’s a lot of depth to that phrase, even though it’s very simple,” White continues. “The subtext is there. I try to embrace that when I write and when I think about lyrics to a song and the melody.”
Tonight at the Kitty Cat Klub, No Kim will release their debut cassingle, “Rock ‘n’ Roll History,” a song that lives this reverence for vintage withering charm in both name and verse. In the song’s reverberating chorus, Weinberg sings, “Do you even look up at the stars and satellites?” – a line that seems meaningless until she repeats the incantation into the growing din of White’s guitars.
Astute local music fans will recognize Weinberg’s delicate whisper and White’s hypnotic riffing as fixtures from now-defunct gloomsayers Murder Shoes. When that band split last year, guitarist Derek Van Gieson took all the spooky, irreverent elements and turned them into Witch Watch. That left Weinberg and White, Murder Shoes’s other principal songwriters, to reflect on how they wanted to move forward.
“Murder Shoes allowed me to try on so many different hats,” Weinberg says. “Some of those songs are really heavy musically. They chug and they soar. That was the animal of the band. It was a fun path while we were on it, but now that we’re not, it’s fun to write what’s in our path.”
Weinberg’s voice is naturally delicate, more at home in the contemplative quiet of a lullaby than the chaotic fervor of a dirge. There were times at Murder Shoes’ live shows that the festival of riffs and drum fills on stage seemed to utterly swallow her up. With No Kim, she sounds at home, wafting comfortably between the sparse chords and DIY sampling.
For his part, White went back to writing songs in his living room on his nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. With each song starting from that place of warmth, he was able to maintain the delicacy and intimacy that suits Weinberg’s voice.
“Sometimes I think of it more like sculpting – taking away things to reveal something more intentional,” White says. “I’m playing way less, but I like it. I’m thinking about every little thing I play. I don’t want to be ham-fisted, I want to be a little more reserved and very intentional with each note that I’m adding to this soundscape.”
The b-side to “Rock ‘n’ Roll History” is “Lullaby,” a tinkering skinwalker of a song that feels like it could’ve been produced in GarageBand. White’s rhythm work with his Korg Electribe sampler is all self-taught, and the rawness only adds to the intimacy. “Lullaby” feels like the kind of self-guided demo you might uncover while cleaning out a musician’s childhood bedroom. There’s a clear pop sensibility, but the mechanics are otherworldly in their lack of polish.
“Slightly dusty digital,” White says, explaining the sound. He borrows the phrase from Pennsylvania electronic artist Tobacco. “He uses an MPC a lot for his music, and he records it to a four-track, and I’ve always been attracted to that sound. Kinda cheap, but kinda not. It exists on its own. It doesn’t have the production that a Rhianna song does, but it doesn't quite sound as lo-fi as Neutral Milk Hotel.”
No Kim have a handful of songs outside the cassingle’s pair, but they’re waiting for the right time to lay them to tape. White and Weinberg have been working with Ali Jaafar of Another Heaven (a band White also plays with) to track the rest of their set, but there’s no clear destination for an EP or full-length right now. And that’s part of the fun.
For the two songwriters, No Kim is an existential drift. It’s music made between two lovers rapt in the intoxication of eras-old compositions. The expectations they’ve set for themselves are the same as their expectations whenever they listen to “Earth Angel” – they want to feel something, and they don’t want it to be complicated.
“‘Rock ‘n’ Roll History’ is about not living for the end goal, not trying to think about what art you’re making for the end purpose of it, but doing it for the moment based on how you feel,” Weinberg says. “Maybe it’s a little cheesy when I say it that way, but it’s really what our mission is with this project.”
White isn’t afraid of coming off as cheesy. In fact, he’s empowered by it. Before the sentiment can leave Weinberg’s lips, he jumps right in to complete it.
“We’re just finding our truth in these songs.”
No Kim single release
With: Good Doom, Val Son, CGW
Where: Kitty Kat Klub
When: 9 p.m. Tues. Aug. 29
Tickets: Free; more info here