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Author: Richard Harrington
09/16/2007 | Washingtonpost.com | www.washingtonpost.com | Feature
He used to drum up a storm in a dance-punk trio.

She played torchy piano ballads.

Together as Georgie James, they make gorgeous retro-pop that melds insinuating melodies, irresistible hooks and lush harmonies. The Washington-based duo debuted its "Places" album at the 9:30 club Sept. 8 before embarking on a North American and European tour that concludes Friday at the Black Cat.

Those two rock clubs are a lot closer to each other than John Davis and Laura Burhenn were growing up in Maryland; he in Potomac, she in the Hagerstown area.

Davis, 31, longtime drummer in Dischord Records' art-dance-punk trio Q and Not U, and Burhenn, 27, a singer-songwriter who had released two solo albums, were introduced two years ago by a mutual friend who sensed that their sensibilities might mesh.

The two musicians discovered a shared history (both started their own record labels in high school) as well as similar tastes in pop traditions from the '60s and '70s from Abba to the Zombies.

Calling from the Pennsylvania Turnpike a few days ago as Georgie James headed to Omaha by way of Chicago, Burhenn says some folks were surprised at the gorgeous pop sounds she and Davis conjured out of their seemingly disparate backgrounds.

"A lot of people listen to Georgie James and say, 'It's so different than Q and Not U. How is it possible you're making this music now?,' " Burhenn says. "I can understand how someone would say that, but I was a big fan of Q and Not U. They were in my record collection with all these albums by people John is also into, across the spectrum of music."

That spectrum ranges from the Beatles and Flamin' Groovies to Astrud Gilberto and Richard and Linda Thompson (absent the tension since Davis and Burhenn are not a couple offstage).
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Even the band name evokes a time and style: a mix of Mersey beat and glam, Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames meets James Brown and the Famous Flames.

"I tried a lot words, concepts," Burhenn recalls, saying she "wanted it to be meaningful, to have a story and to be Google-able. John was, 'Who cares? A band name's a band name.' I think we found a really good common ground with that one."

Common ground proved key as the two musicians spent a lot of time talking about what artists and songs they liked, Burhenn recalls. "When we started playing music together, we found we had a very similar vision of the direction we wanted to go in. John and I both bristle at indie-pop. We're definitely making pop music, but indie-pop sounds a little lighter than what we do. I think of it as more rock music that's poppy than pop music that has a rock edge. It's funny to us because we're making pop music, period."

By any name, the resulting sound was an energetic brand of power-pop propelled by Davis's chirpy guitar riffs and Burhenn's animated keyboards. They split vocal duties on many tracks, though some of their best songs are structured as duets, including the album's first single, "Need Your Needs," and "Henry and Hanzy."

Both musicians, who share all songwriting credits regardless of actual divisions of labor, have long histories. In the early '80s, Davis's father was program director and general manager at DC101 and several other stations, which brought John into contact with a lot of free records.

"A formative experience, just being around music all the time," Davis says. At 13, a year after getting a guitar as a birthday present, he started playing music with a group of friends, staying together through high school and college as the band Corm. As a high school senior, Davis started the first of two fanzines (Slanted, Held Like Sound) as well as Shute Records, which released Corm material and singles and compilations by local bands (Velocity Girl and Chisel would go on to major-label releases). Davis also hosted shows on campus station WMUC while attending the University of Maryland.

In Corm, Davis contributed guitar, backing vocals and eventually drumming, "never intending to be strictly a drummer in a band." When Q and Not U formed in 1998, he filled in briefly behind the kit. "After a while, we liked it and I liked doing it, and I didn't really have anything else going on," he said. "It was going really well, so we just stuck with it" until the band called it quits in 2005 after three albums.

Burhenn, who has a degree in literature from Catholic University, began taking piano lessons when she was 5. She made the first of two solo albums as a high school senior as part of an internship with the music department at Shepherd College in West Virginia, later starting Laboratory Records. Burhenn has played the local singer-songwriter/folk club circuit and has sat in with various bands appreciative of her skills on the Rhodes electric piano.

"Places" has earned positive reviews as well as airplay on college radio and major independent and online stations, including Los Angeles's prestigious KCRW. A new video for the guitar-driven "Need Your Needs," directed by Scott Mueller and Eric Cheevers, is on the band's MySpace page.
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