Moto-crossroads 

The full-throttle ascendancy of Atlanta's Moto-Litas

The four young women hurrying to cross Ponce de Leon Avenue look more like employees of a nearby bank than up-and-coming rock musicians. But appearances can be deceiving. The fresh-faced quartet poised at the intersection are the Moto-Litas, a group that shows every sign of becoming Atlanta's most successful all-female band.

Today, they're headed eagerly toward Bakos Amp Works to listen to the final mix of their new album, For the Greater Good, set for an Oct. 2 release on Daemon Records. Defiantly crossing against the red light, guitarist Mary Collins, bassist/vocalist Erin Dangar, drummer Stacy Kerber and vocalist/guitarist Courtney King laugh infectiously, discussing clubs and music as they make plans to check out other local bands later in the evening. But once inside Bakos' small analog studio -- the crowded workshop full of vintage amps and equipment where Greater Good was recorded -- the four musicians quickly settle down to business.

Getting serious is something the Moto-Litas have learned to do rapidly. Since their modest live debut -- a silly 17-minute, mostly instrumental performance at the former Dottie's Jan. 1, 2000 -- the 'Litas have undergone a whirlwind evolution. In less than two years, they've enjoyed a one-month Star Bar residency, headlined the 40 Watt Club in Athens, released an independent D.I.Y. album, contributed to a high-profile compilation (a charmingly lo-fi take on Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" for the upcoming American Graffiti tribute disc) and delivered a blazing performance at Music Midtown. They've even had a beer named after them -- Dogwood Brewing Company's Moto-Lita Pale Ale.

As producer Jeff Bakos spins the master of the new CD, all 'Litas listen intently. King's forceful guitar intro for "Cheated" rips from the studio speakers, initially hinting at the band's early surf influence but yielding to a mix of '80s new-wave spunk and assertive post-punk vocals. "Have you ever been cheeeeated?!" King wails with a sassy self-confidence reminiscent of early Wanda Jackson or Jeannie C. Reilly. This is hardly pre-programmed pap from some robotic, Pepsi-shilling girl "singer." This is genuine guitar-fueled rock 'n' roll, with lyrics that glisten with the same universal appeal that made "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" the Stones' most enduring hit. With enough hooks here to make even the most oafish A&R rep drop his free liquor and take notice, the Moto-Litas' music merges the playfulness of the B-52's with the ersatz charm of the Tom Tom Club, grafted onto the same rock-solid platform groups like the Breeders rode to national success.

"It's funny how people trip over their tongues trying to label us," says King. "I love being a misfit, and I love evading labels. We don't consciously sit down and try to sound like anyone. The reason we've come so far is we are so damn real."

As the CD plays on, all present agree it's a vast improvement over their previous disc, Talk Your Way Out of This. Recorded in less than 48 hours by producer K-Dogg and released a year ago, Talk has a warm neo-vinyl texture. But Good, recorded across two intense weeks, bristles with an expensive-sounding sonic sheen. Clearly, working with producer Bakos was another important step forward for the band.

"The best thing was seeing Jeff get excited about working with us at, like, 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night," says King. "He took the best from us and captured that as a full band playing together."

When the 'Litas formed, guitarists Collins and King knew only a handful of chords between them. The group first came together in 1998 as part of an elaborate joke played on the all-male surf band the Penetrators. Collins and Dangar planned to learn the Scarlets' 1959 instrumental "Stampede" -- a favorite of the Penetrators -- and perform it as an all-girl group called the Penetrated. "I had been playing bass for a while, but I wasn't trying to start a real band," recalls Dangar. "I just enjoyed hanging out with Mary because she knew about music."

Adopting a series of Southern Surf Syndicate-inspired nicknames for themselves ("Trixie Riptide," "Leggy Limbeaux," "Betty Boomskins" and "Kitty Kowabunga"), the group soon found that its collective inexperience worked in its favor. Unencumbered by preconceptions about how to make music, they generated their own style of catchy, sweet-sounding rock, underscored with a tough retro edge.

That dichotomy is reflected in the artwork for the band's new CD. Designed by bassist Dangar, the cover features '40s-era airfleet imagery. While smiling stewardesses grace the outside, Greater Good's inner art depicts the 'Litas as a dedicated team of Rosie-the-Riveters, hard at work doing what many might presume is a man's job.

"To me, those images provide a phrase for the feel of the music we created here," explains Collins. "During the recording process, we all put a lot of personal woes aside and concentrated on the album as a whole. We became a complete entity working for the greater good of the music we love to play and create. And as corny as it sounds, I think it really worked."

The Moto-Litas' spirited collaboration quickly attracted interest from Daemon Records, the label founded and owned by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. "Their first CD was playing in the background while we worked one day," recalls Daemon's Andrea White. What first caught White's ear was the 'Litas' version of "Lilting," an obscure early-'80s gem by Oh OK, from the first wave of Athens rock. "I knew this band had to be cool."

"We went to see them play at the Star Bar," adds Daemon's Stacey Singer, "and not only do they rock, they have a lot of fun doing it. That's a big part of what we look for when suggesting an act to the boss."

Collins immediately warmed to the idea of being on Daemon. "I thought this is where we needed to be right now."

For the present, the Moto-Litas will be mostly onstage, as they tour the Southeast to promote the new album. And nowhere is their evolution more evident than in the strength and confidence of their live shows. The four musicians, however, still confess to more than a few lingering pre-show jitters. "We all take a big dump right before we go on," Kerber says, "because we're so nervous."

"Rock 'n' roll keeps us regular," Dangar says, laughing.

"With this band, we can go in any direction," King says, as the CD's playback concludes. "And that's what I want to do. Let's just push it and see what happens."

The four girls smile and wave goodbye, heading out of the studio and back to the busy crossroads. High above their heads, the traffic light turns bright green for the Moto-Litas.

The Moto-Litas' play a CD release party Sat., Oct. 6, at the Echo Lounge, 551 Flat Shoals Ave. Call for show time. $8. The Close and Nineteen Forty-Five open. 404-681-3600. www.echostatic.com.

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