I’m Saying That There’s Nobody Meaner (Than The Not-That-Old Lady From Rasputina)
Most reviews I’ve read of Rasputina albums, such as this rather unexpected piece in the Wall Street Journal, seem to focus on the band’s pillaging of obscure history for song subjects. The standard angle on Rasputina is that they are a less cheerful, less guitar-driven, less male version of They Might Be Giants. And although that statement might be sort of true, I think Rasputina means a lot more than that.
Anyone familiar with my former radio show knows that I’m a big fan of what you might call “dark” music. The truly evil stuff frightens me some of the time and makes me laugh most of the time, but isn’t really my bag; I’m more of an Addams Family/Haunted Mansion person when it comes to what kind of “dark” aesthetic I love. But it doesn’t mean I want it to be a complete joke. Rasputina are among my favorite bands ever: they can be incredibly creepy but also hilarious, often simultaneously, and they have an exceedingly unusual sound for a rock band to boot.
What I’m referring to is the fact that there isn’t a guitar or bass to be found on any Rasputina recording; their primary instrument is the cello. I also want to note that much like Nine Inch Nails or the Streets, calling Rasputina a “band” or using the pronoun “they” when referring to it is basically a formality; the only constant member is former Ultra Vivid Scene member and Nirvana touring cellist Melora Creager, who is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the musical geniuses of the ’00s.
Melora/Rasputina’s new album, Sister Kinderhook, which was recorded with new bandmates Daniel DeJesus (second cello) and Catie D’Amica (drums), came out a few weeks ago. You can listen to the first single, “Holocaust of Giants,” here. Melora seems to have come to that inevitable point in every pop musician’s life when, like a salmon swimming upstream to its birthplace, they feel the urge to “return to their roots.” This is definitely the most uncomplicated Rasputina recording since their 1996 debut Thanks for the Ether. There is little novelty on this crisp, streamlined album beyond cellos playing rock music, which, let’s face it, has been pretty novel the whole time.
Rasputina’s use of the cello is in no way a gimmick. Using it as their (almost) exclusive melody instrument gives their music an anachronistic quality that does more to establish a gothic, steampunkish feel than most lyrics could. I know of no other band who have corralled this grand instrument as affectingly as they have into the framework of rock. (There is one possible exception, but their non-Metallica cover material is lackluster in my opinion.)
I don’t mean to say that I disregard Melora’s lyrics or singing as unimportant. I think “Holocaust of Giants” is a perfect example of her talent in those areas. When she sings, “The Bible speaks of this / There were giants in our midst / But they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war, / Thank your lucky stars that we don’t do that anymore,” she proves in one four-bar sequence to be incredibly adept at writing complex verse structure, tailoring her vibrato voice to fit her music, and, indeed, her aforementioned penchant for obscure history.
Most gothic or otherwise dark and creepy pop cultural movements are significantly informed by one historical era or another. On the surface, “Goth convention” and “Victorian cosplayers meetup” have often been basically synonyms. And even the Misfits and other horror punk bands were obsessed with a specific historical aesthetic, namely horror films from the ’50s and earlier. Why is this? The conventional wisdom would be that these scenes are primarily a form of romanticism, a depressing wistfulness for a mythical past that never existed.
I think the explanation is simpler than that. I think the essence of Gothic culture is in understanding, accepting, and in some cases celebrating, the grim realities of humanity. In this context, human history is not something to be either outrun or returned to; it is simply the most detailed story of the unchanging facts of human nature. For someone who follows this philosophy, history doesn’t inform art; it is art.
In this way, the mere trappings of a historical period are enough to set a song down the path of effective scary goodness. So, while I’m a big fan of historical minutiae myself, I actually think some of Rasputina’s most compelling songs are those that don’t obsess over it. Take two songs from my favorite Rasputina album, 2002’s Cabin Fever!, which was a brief foray into electronica-inspired production.
First, “Thimble Island,” which, like “Holocaust of Giants,” is a great example of Melora’s lyrical dexterity: “I’ve not heard of girls returning / It is a murky mystery place / I may not have had much book learning / But I’ve got charms to win the race.” Again, the intensity of mood and setting that comes across in this very short excerpt is, to me, astounding. By using phrases like “I’ve not” and referencing “book learning” she establishes an old fashioned feeling, and throughout the song, the subtle hints that Thimble Island may be a good deal more sinister than the singer believes are everywhere.
The last Rasputina song I want to mention is from the same album; it’s called “Hunter’s Kiss” and it’s just about the creepiest song I have ever heard. It’s true that a deer being shot is not the least disturbing subject matter imaginable. But the way Melora turns the event into profoundly demented psychosexual soap opera is impressive. It proves that real-life horrors can be just as twisted and unsettling as supernatural ones, and that an extra-dry sense of humor might be the best way of exposing this fact.
In this interview, Melora says that “fame is not a good thing; it’s bad for people. So maybe I haven’t wanted it too much.” I think that had Rasputina been just a tad more accessible during their formative years, they could have been pretty big. As this fascinating Billboard article (on the bottom left of the page) from 1998 proves, early in their career Columbia Records agreed. Rasputina went on tour with Marilyn Manson in an attempt to make them into the next Goth superstars, and even a slick MTV-ified music video was produced. Personally I would have loved to have seen them get more recognition, but it’s clear that Melora is content with Rasputina’s trajectory from major label prospect to self-published indie darling. She knows the music is the most important thing. And for me at least, Rasputina’s music will be important for a very long time.