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2 Heads Are Better for 5

O.C. pop music: Red Five's energetic pair of songwriter-strummers give the band a key vocal signature.

July 05, 1996|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — Onstage, Red Five's singing twosome of Beth Carmellini and Jenni McElrath could easily be taken for a pair of bookends, or perhaps even a couple of sisters.

Standing side by side, McElrath and Carmellini present two dimpled smiles and dual hair-dye jobs in matching or complementary hues of flaming red, platinum, yellow or orange.

The twinning is both visual and musical--two small, slender, attractively fresh-faced young women strumming furiously on guitars while piping catchy, animated, fast-hitting tunes in unison or close harmony.

But if the two have come to share the same musical space--"Space," about the jealous guarding of personal territory, is the first single and video from Red Five's touted new debut album, "Flash"--they have arrived by divergent paths.

Carmellini is the natural, the girl who had a guitar in her hands by age 5 and never let go; the born rocker whose duck-to-water enthusiasm for performance was evident even in her earliest club forays.

McElrath is a late bloomer who learned by trial and error. She had enrolled in and dropped out of college before she learned her first guitar chords, and the performing ability that today makes her a worthy foil for Carmellini was acquired only through concentrated effort. (The two will front Red Five on Saturday as part of the Warped Tour festival at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson.)

"For me, [playing in a rock band] wasn't a natural thing. It was a worked-on thing," McElrath said in a recent interview at the home of Red Five's bassist, Mitchell Townsend. "I've always been kind of shy, but I love performing. It can be kind of scary if you're not very confident in what you're doing."

There's a pre-adolescent horror story about one of McElrath's earliest encounters with the stage. With coaxing from drummer Adam Zuckert, she related the tale of how, as a seventh-grader in the San Diego County community of Vista, her big solo spot in a school production had turned to disaster.

McElrath was supposed to sing "Tomorrow" from "Annie," or some such sweet ballad. But the teacher in charge of her school chorus changed the key at the last minute, and her overtaxed voice started cracking in front of an audience that included much of her family.

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"My family is a bunch of sarcastic jerks," McElrath recalled, a tart note of humor in her voice suggesting that she's not immune to a little sarcasm herself. "They started laughing, and my cousins walked out--they couldn't control themselves, they were laughing so hard. I think I stopped singing after that," not to resume until she joined her first rock band, years later. "Now they all want albums."

No such nightmares befell Carmellini while she was growing up a ham in Placentia.

Her father bought her a guitar when she was 5. "I played it constantly," she said. "I brought it everywhere. I still play every day, at least an hour.

"I've always loved making my friends laugh and being sort of loud and boisterous," added Carmellini, who, as an interviewee, is more the circumspect, soft-spoken sort. "When I'm onstage it just feels right. I've never had stage fright."

Carmellini, who like all Red Five members is in her mid-20s, grew up hearing such punk bands as the Adolescents and Agent Orange playing at backyard parties. By 14, she was in a high school garage band, having first had to suffer the indignity of being forced to audition because the boys in the band wanted to be assured that a girl could really play.

Carmellini emerged in the early '90s fronting Suicide Door, a bluesy rock band in which she seemed to be taking cues from an impressive model, Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde. Carmellini may not have had a style of her own--she says any resemblance to Napolitano was not calculated--but her beguiling stage presence was already evident.

McElrath, meanwhile, was coming along slowly, learning by degrees as the singer of Silvertrain, a Long Beach alternative-rock band with a country twang.

She had moved to Long Beach to attend Cypress College; after dropping out of school, she took up the guitar and, four months later, landed in the otherwise all-male Silvertrain.

"I think they wanted me more as a novelty back then: 'Check it out, we got a girl.' " But McElrath was willing to endure a bit of tokenism for the chance to learn.

McElrath and Carmellini played the same circuit and had mutual friends and influences in the Cadillac Tramps, the leading grass-roots Orange County band of the early '90s, with which both made their CD debuts as backup singers. Soon, they were friends, then band mates.

The signature tandem lead-vocal approach was there from the start, McElrath said, because "we're both singing hogs."

The band is defined by its upbeat, energetic delivery of songs that often rise from troubled feelings. The lyrics, written by McElrath and Carmellini both separately and together, typically detail unrequited loves and desires or portray self-destructive characters.

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