Hallie Pritts is on the fence with her band, Boca Chica. Not a literal wooden one, but rather a figurative boundary between underground credibility and public-radio comfort.
As far as the underground cred goes, the group was originally formed in 2004 as a stripped-down, lo-fi honkytonk duo with Pritts' childhood friend, upright bassist Susanna Meyer. They often play a crowd favorite called "Punk Rock Boy" ("he's been known to get in fights / I've been known to stay up nights"). Their new self-released full-length album Transform Into Beasts -- easily one of the important local releases of the year -- employs the efficient digipak style of local DIY factory Sort Of Records, and their CD release show will be at Lawrenceville punk rock haven Belvedere's, on Fri., July 13.
Yet this same band played a live concert in WYEP's well-appointed studios -- where they fit subversively but brilliantly into the Adult Alternative agenda -- and was featured on NPR's All Songs Considered. Rather than ending up in the indie-rock column, City Paper readers voted Boca Chica 3rd in the "Best Country Band" category (behind, uh, Ruff Creek and Povertyneck Hillbillies).
"We were always a bit on the surreal side for alt-country," cautions Pritts. "For example, I have a line in 'Big Calm' that says 'those girls with mechanical eyes can't hurt you.' That's not quite right for a straight-up bluegrass festival."
Though still nestled within the rubric of back-porch Americana, Boca Chica has appeared on podcasts preaching the gospel of the New Weird America, and Pritts claims Joanna Newsom as a personal heroine. It's clear to Pritts that the group pushes the boundaries on both sides. "I always have a hard time knowing exactly how to describe us," she says. "I found myself looking at other people's MySpace pages to see what they put up top. I looked up Sufjan Stevens and it said 'bluegrass and experimental,' but Andrew Bird has 'folk-rock.' I've been taking a poll but haven't come up with anything yet."
Like Bird and Stevens, Pritts has shifted the band in a more expansive direction, and will debut a new string section at the CD release party, adding to the already solid lineup of Meyer, Greg Dutton (also of the band Lohio, on guitar, synth and banjo), violinist Megan Williams, and drummer Matt Miller. This stab at a lusher sound was precipitated by the way Transform was recorded by local man-about-the-scene Dave Bernabo (of Vale and Year, DBL D) at his Woolslayer Way abode in Bloomfield, with drums and mixing added by Eric Graf (Boxstep).
"I really like [Bernabo's] style," says Pritts. "He's pretty fluid and does a lot of experimental stuff. On some tracks, we just went in and recorded it straight, but with others, he had a lot of influence."
Case in point: the song "Blackberries," which tempers Boca Chica's usual slow, country-ish lope and Pritts' distinctive, emotive vocals (think Gillian Welch meets The Cranberries' Dolores O'Riordan) with the cabaret shuffle of a Tom Waits or Suzanne Vega. "That one we've never played live. I took it to Dave and asked if he had any ideas. So he had Susanna put on multiple bass tracks, and he added guitars and eight accordions, basically coming up with a song that has a lot of Dave in it. I could see us maybe moving in more of that direction."
Meanwhile, Pritts is making moves around the country with her music. Since many of her band members often can't leave town due to full-time jobs -- although they're embarking on a North Carolina mini-tour in July -- Pritts plans to showcase Boca Chica songs on a September jaunt, backed up by eight-piece Boston experimental-folk band Cuddle Magic (featuring Chris McDonald from Ennui). "They'll do their thing, and then they'll play with me," she says. "I love playing with [the Pittsburgh lineup] and that's who I record with, but I need to step up touring on my own."
As for the meaning behind the album title Transform Into Beasts, Hallie assures that there's nothing magical or weird-woodsy behind it, like, say, turning into a wolf, a bear or a deer -- all big indie-rock totems as of late. "I just liked it because it gives a really clear image. There are animals mentioned in a lot of my songs -- not on purpose, it just happened that way. So it's something I noticed after the fact."
Boca Chica CD Release, with Lohio, The M.O.'s (members of The You and Donora), and DJ Mary Mack. 9 p.m. Fri., June 13. Belvedere's, 4016 Butler St., Lawrenceville. $5. 412-687-2555