Stringed instruments have a long, if not always honorable, tradition in pop music. Sweeping violin washes have been used to sweeten everybody from Ella Fitzgerald to Hank Williams for audiences that, presumably, preferred to swallow their personalities sugar-coated. Rock bands, even punk rock bands, feeling old and stifled by the same-old guitar/bass/drums lineup, have used the cello as a one-stop-shop for artistic legitimacy. Performers from Paul McCartney to Elvis Costello have written for and with string quartets as a signal of their own maturity and/or bankruptcy. And then there's the Moody Blues, art rockers who these days won't even tour without a full symphony stacked up in the wings.
None of which history is sufficient preparation for Rasputina, a pop band, maybe even a rock band, perhaps even, in some important sense, a punk rock band composed of one sideman drummer and three women playing nothing but cellos. Or, in the words of Rasputina's pre-debut press postcards, "a goddamn cello band." If you didn't see this one coming down the hype pike, you're not alone. There's never been anything like it before.
Rasputina mastermind and vocalist Melora Creager is a 30-year-old New Yorker who studied cello as a child, hit adolescence and decided she must be a nerd for studying cello, "lapsed" from the discipline for years, supported herself as a jewelry designer and was dragged back into the fold by the pleadings of friends in rock bands who decided that their tunes might benefit from the mournful sound of her instrument. The Pixies were one such group. Nirvana was another, and Creager accompanied that band on its final tour of Europe. Somewhere along the way, she decided that rock's guitar hegemony made no sense. The cello, she thought, was a much more evocative instrument, capable of conveying a greater range of feeling, especially if you were un-stuffy enough to run the thing through a flange box, distortion pedals and lots of reverb, as might suit the mood. "Why has guitar come to dominate as the basic instrument in rock?" she wonders. "How did that happen?"
However it happened, Thanks for the Ether, the Columbia debut featuring Creager and cellomates Julia Kent and Agniezska Rybska, begins its un-happening.
"Boys," Creager observes, "usually start bands to meet girls, or because they're fans, but this is about expression and satisfaction, and about empowerment, even though I hate that word." Creager hates the word empowerment (if not the concept) for the obvious reason, which is that it's a trite thing to say, and one listen to Thanks for the Ether is plenty of evidence that Creager's is not a trite viewpoint. Satiric, sure. Ironic, yes. Maybe even a wee bit whacked. But not trite. A medievalish ballad about dead babies shares space with a screechy tune called, tongue in sunken cheek, "Kate Moss," a psycho-historical "Howard Hughes;" impressionistic set-piece non sequiturs such as "My Little Shirtwaist Fire" and "Transylvanian Concubine," bongwater-esque revisions such as "The Donner Party" and "Rusty the Skatemaker" and thoroughly creepy covers of "Why Don't You Do Right" and "Brand New Key."
Oh yeah, and the band performs, sitting down of course, in what Creager calls a "collection of underwear through the ages," which is to say tightly strung corsets and Victorian gauze.
That sounds a little gimmicky, and Creager, who says the idea for the band sprang fully formed into her brain about five years ago, confesses a certain trepidation about the novelty factor and its possible consequences in an industry that's now fully as fickle as its sister-business, the fashion world. "I want [the band] to succeed," she says, "but I wouldn't want us to have one hit song and then disappear." And when the inevitable (after Rasputina's reams of pleasantly astounded press) copycat band springs up in the trail of Rasputina's lacy frills? "Well, they say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," Creager says, "but I'm sure I'll feel threatened and bitter."
Of course, potential copycats would have to offer significantly more than just another cello lineup to challenge Rasputina, which has, in addition to its novel idea, a formidable array of instrumental experience (60 years between the three women), a thoroughly irreverent approach to pop songcraft and Creager's double-threat combination of lovely/scary vibrato lilt and idiosyncratic personality to spare. That Rasputina's cellos can bounce and rage and soar with a supra-guitar felicity is a joy and a selling point, but Creager's songs could hold up to any sort of instrumentation she wanted to lay on them. Several, in fact, are presently being remixed in collaborative versions by the guitar-heavy Marilyn Manson.
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Not that Creager has any plans to abandon the three-cello lineup anytime soon. Not only does it work, but it works where nothing like it has ever worked before. And besides, she's on a mission to prove that all that time studying her instrument wasn't a waste after all, that it might have been, in fact, a first step toward the future, or at least a future, of rock.
"People keep asking me what instruments we're going to use on the next album," Creager says, "like this is a joke. They don't ask guitar bands that."
No, they don't. Not now. But now that Rasputina is showing the pop world what a few well-handled cellos can do, they just may start.
Rasputina opens for the Cranes at 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 26, at the Urban Art Bar, 112 Milam. Cover charge is $1. For info, call 225-0050.