Atlanta’s Nikki & the Phantom Callers are a jangling country-tinged indie-rock outfit with one boot heel planted firmly in retro 1960s sounds and the other in the now. Leader Nikki Speake—also a member of garage power trio Midnight Larks and all-girl psych rockers Shantih Shantih—grew up singing at church in smalltown Alabama, Dadeville to be exact. She was writing her own songs by age 16 and fronted punk and country bands during college. Since then, Speake has shared bills with Shannon and the Clams, L.A. Witch, The Legendary Shack Shakers, King Khan & the Shrines, Tav Falco, Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires, Banditos, Lydia Loveless and many more, and has played in front of thousands at major Southeastern festivals such as Project Pabst, 420 Fest, Muddy Roots and Music Midtown.
Nikki & the Phantom Callers’ first release, their new 7-inch single “Prodigal Daughter” / “Mamas Should Know” (out July 27) features Aaron Mason on lead guitar, Russell Owens on drums, and Speake’s Shantih Shantih bandmate Anna Kramer—also of Anna Kramer & The Lost Cause and, most recently, newly resurrected Merge Records band The Rock*A*Teens—on bass & backing vocals. Speake and Kramer’s voices are front and center on these two new songs, calling to mind artists like Alvvays, Best Coast, and especially Neko Case singing in lockstep with her longtime backup singer, former Rock*A*Teen Kelly Hogan.
For the sessions, Nikki & the Phantom Callers assembled at Toco Electric Recording with co-producer/engineer Randy Michael (Mattiel, Black Linen, The Booze) at the helm, cutting everything straight to tape with a vintage eight-track. Which was plenty—they only ended up needing six tracks. The band worked quickly like The Beatles or Stones would have back in their early years—one day to record, one night to mix.
For Speake, these new songs are about that unique relationship between a mother and a daughter. While she was able to experience a deep bond with her adoptive mother (her maternal grandmother), she lost her own mother at a young age. “Prodigal Daughter” and “Mamas Should Know” explore the ensuing sense of confusion, of feeling lost without answers, and eventually growing up to put together the puzzle pieces of your own identity.
A feminist twist on the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son, that classic tale about how all sinners can come home again, on “Prodigal Daughter” Speake sings lead on verses two and four, and Kramer on one and three, with plenty of impressive vocal interplay along the way. Over the strum of a single guitar, the song begins with the confession, “Kissed a lot of misters, but only loved one / Went back to kissin’ when the love was gone.” Then the drums count off and the band kicks in, the song trucking along to the steady backing of Owens and Kramer, with Mason’s cool but simple guitar leads bobbing and weaving in between Speake and Kramer's vocal lines.
With its foreboding opening cymbal hits and dark, almost gothic guitar intro (a dead ringer for Sam the Sham’s sinister early-‘60s classic “Little Red Riding Hood”), “Mamas Should Know” is both a plea and a warning. It plays out with plenty of loss and yearning, as if a long-missing, freshly unearthed Flannery O’Connor short story. “What to reap, what to sow, what to leave for the crow, write it down so we’ll know,” Speake sings in sly rhyme, Mason’s ensuing guitar solo a perfect complement, Kramer’s bass line underscoring the creeping dread of growing up and realizing that you'll have to learn everything on your own.