There is a surprising moment roughly midway through Save Charlie, the new EP by Brooklyn-based Vermont expats Rubblebucket. It starts innocently enough, with a bright whistling intro that feels faintly, and strangely, recognizable. That cheery, arpeggiated melody is looped and then joined by a conflux of gritty bass and electro-treated drums, a beat-centric sound that has become a staple of the band since they put the Afrofunk of their adolescence aside in favor of arty dance rock.
Vocalist Kalmia Traver flits and flirts with that melody as the band settles into an easy groove behind her. Through the steady build of the first verse, the song continues to feel familiar, though still in a hazy, distant sort of way. At least until the hook hits.
“As he rises to her apology,” Traver sings amid smoky tendrils of synth. “Anybody else would surely know / He’s watching her go.”
Then, “But what a fool believes, he sees.”
The freakin’ Doobie Brothers?
“I feel like it’s a pretty straightforward cover,” says Traver of the song — which is, indeed, the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” — in a recent phone call while strolling through a park in New Jersey with her partner and bandmate Alex Toth. “But for some reason it does remind me of the Cardigans, in that it’s kind of a light pop approach.”
While it would be incorrect to imply the rest of Save Charlie is similarly informed by the blue-eyed soul of the mid-1970s, Michael McDonald-era Doobies — or, for that matter, early 1990s Swedish pop-rock — the EP does find Rubblebucket in a more playful mood than on more recent efforts, such as the 2012 EP Oversaturated and their 2011 full-length, Omega La La. While those records were hardly buttoned-down affairs, their stormy grooves and bombastic orchestrations feel more formidable and rigid in comparison to Charlie’s mischievous disposition.
“Something just snapped, and we’re feeling a lot more freedom,” says Traver of the record’s breezy bent. She explains that on Oversaturated the band’s stated goal was to write pop songs.
“We went super serious into that writing process,” she says. But along the way, she says, the band may have lost sight of some of the qualities that made Rubblebucket, well, Rubblebucket.
“Listening back, it’s like, ‘Whoa. What happened to the horns? What happened to the chaos and the silliness?’” Traver says. “We’re just a lot more relaxed right now.”
Horns and silliness take center stage on the EP’s title cut, which opens the record with an elastic guitar line and exultant brass that almost seems to wink at Miami Sound Machine. That playfulness continues throughout, and is especially apparent on the trio of remix tracks that close the EP — including two wildly divergent takes on “Save Charlie” from Big Black Delta and Chico Mann.
“I feel like every new remix is like opening a present on Christmas morning,” says Traver. “Maybe it’s from your wacky aunt who gives you weird things, or maybe it’s the best gift ever.”
Ironically, Rubblebucket’s rediscovered friskiness comes in the wake of its darkest hour. Earlier this summer, Traver was diagnosed with Stage 1 ovarian cancer.
“This whole thing has been so strange. There has been all of this growth and opportunity on the career side,” she says, noting that the band’s new EP is being released by Communion Records, also home to the likes of Gotye and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. “And simultaneously, there’s the whole cancer thing. It’s been a really interesting physical and emotional roller coaster.”
Traver is in the middle of chemotherapy treatment, with two sessions down and two more to go. Each round is spaced 21 days apart, which gives Traver a series of short windows in which to perform live. The band will tour the new EP in two-week chunks beginning in October.
“I get sick for about a week straight and then pop out of it and feel great,” she says. “Performing live is such a source of energy in my life, I didn’t want to put that on the back burner.”
Traver says her prognosis is good, thanks to early detection. Still, it has been a harrowing few months for her.
“I was so scared of losing my hair,” she says. “It was really stressing me out. But then I cut it and I realized that because I live in Brooklyn, no one even gave me a second glance because people in Brooklyn are all weird looking.” She pauses and then adds, “It’s kind of opened up a lot of style opportunities, actually.”
While Traver’s attitude is light, the seriousness of her situation is not lost on her.
“I feel like it’s been the biggest learning experience of my life,” she says, noting the wellspring of support that has come from Rubblebucket fans and the music community at large. But she says that learning how to accept that help and support has been her most profound revelation.
“I’ve always been a staunch DIY person, a jack-of-all-trades who never wanted help,” she says. “I think that was to my detriment. And to be reminded how wonderful our community is has been amazing. It’s been a struggle. But it’s been much more illuminating than difficult.”
"Save Charlie" by Rubblebucket comes out on Tuesday, September 24. It will be available at rubblebucket.bandcamp.com.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Saving Grace"