Oh Perilous World
It’s a hill that I may have to die on that genre music, when sung by women, can have all the merits of a brand new genre, and besides, that there are genres, today and in the future, that could only be invented under female leadership.
This knowledge can relieve us of the discontents of autumnal male canon music worship, cut through Mark Fisher’s time loops of “reissue, repackage, re-evaluate the songs”, on-this-day-in-rock-history culture, and perhaps even reheat the dying embers of, or better yet replace, the decadent Rock art form itself.
When I look back over a lifetime’s listening for examples of music that both appealed to me then and seems prophetic now, Rasputina loom largest. I came across Rasputina, on the internet, the only place I’ve ever found them, in 2005, in the glory days of MySpace, where I was entranced by their cover of a song new to me but which I soon came to feel is one of the best songs ever written, Belle and Sebastian’s “Fox In The Snow”.
Rasputina were an American Gothic rock group (chamber rock group, underground girl group) comprised, in their classic line-up, of 3 (or more) female cellists and a male drummer. Remember everything I said about the roots of originality in the Van Der Graaf Generator essay? As good as the many Rasputina cover versions are, the clever and often moving original songs take the listener far deeper; darkly fantastic illustrations of historic American femininity, and of historical misfortune: the US 19th century with its Brothers Grimm qualities enhanced, in songs like “The Donner Party”*, “My Little Shirtwaist Fire”**, and “1816, The Year Without A Summer”***.
Upgrade to paid, it only encourages me.
New Yorker Melora Creager, who wrote the songs, and designed the group’s look and sound, told the Wall Street Journal at the time of Sister Kinderhook that "A lot of what I've done comes from naiveté. It didn't occur to me that my way is different or odd. Yes, naiveté serves me well."
How to turn a cello trio into something like contemporary music beat-wise was a problem to which Rasputina gave a lot of thought in their early years and for which they came up with original solutions, e.g. the ritualistic “Sign of the Zodiac” on How We Quit The Forest (1998), on which Chris Vrenna builds up a kind of organic drum machine sound, with added electronic noise; on Cabin Fever (2002) the drum track of “Thimble Island” sounds positively steam-driven. “Holocaust of Giants” on Sister Kinderhooks (2010) becomes a convincing heavy rock song of sorts even though we’re aware its percussion is just a tambourine, as does “Retinue of Moons/The Infidel in Me” from Oh Perilous World (2007), the latter part of which is a bona fide grunge rock anthem played by cellos instead of guitars.
My Quantico rejection
The isolation, the breakdowns
And mysterious injections
Hey-ey oh ey, the Infidel is me
Then it was I
The lone futurist leading
Scores of resistors armed with tridents
But you're not there
On the Rasputina compilation Great American Gingerbread (2011), there’s a track called “Death At Disneyland” (it’s lucky to die there) that uses and subverts the I-VIm-IV-V chord change, making that cheapest of progressions into something twisted and bittersweet. It’s about time someone did that.
In the realms of time and space traversed by Rasputina there is always the historical risk of an early death (plus death’s own hazards, in “Transylvanian Concubine”), and dread, loss and suffering are expressed through darkling Victorian humour. Or, in more contemporary language in the heartbreaking suicide ballad “A Quitter”.
They'll all remember what I did.
They'll ask "Whose fault was it?"
"Oh she was just a kid."
“A Quitter” is the final track on Cabin Fever, my favourite of the Rasputina albums, where sadness is seldom far from the surface. There is – as always – so much diversity of genre, subject, and time across this album that the whole thing would come apart if it wasn’t held together by a unique sound and a distinctive voice. Creager’s singing can be mannered, and capable of multiple effects, and if the song seems to warrant it can be as challenging as Joanna Newsom’s (“Hunter’s Kiss”), but is always committed to the song and usually as rich, sweet, and loud as… the cello itself, and when it is, as on “A Quitter”, harmonizes exquisitely with itself, or with the voices of the other cellists.
Cellos can be engagingly played through fuzz pedals and “State Fair” is a great example of this; the song has nu metal touches, and a beautifully melodic power pop bridge (which seems a bit lost in the otherwise splendid Tweaker Remix by Chris Vrenna on the My Fever Broke EP (2002)****), but the fireworks that come from the fuzzed cellos remind me not of guitars but of synths (vide the fireworks on P.H.F’s Purest Hell). A bowed acoustic instrument, electronically industrialized to replace an electric guitar, has skipped a half-century of electric guitar over-familiarity to predict the freedom of digital instruments. The narrator of “Gingerbread Coffin” buries an old doll and says a black mass over it to make it come back to life; we hear an electric piano played through a fuzz pedal, a brittle deformation of a pure tone, like a cracked glass piano on the point of shattering, probably derived from horror movie soundtracks like Jay Fergusson’s score for A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child,***** which will soon become a staple timbre of the witch house genre, itself foreshadowed (despite the song being, like “Gingerbread Coffin”, in triple time) by Rasputina’s biggest hit, “Transylvanian Concubine”, which would gain the band new fans in 1998 when used on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer soundtrack (S2 ep13) and which had the honour of being remixed by Marilyn Manson.
The lyric to “Our Lies” is made up of lies that fans sent in; the best of these contributions won prizes, and are properly credited. There’s also the singular masterpiece “AntiqueHighHeelRedDollShoes” in which, I swear, Rasputina are inventing hyperpop, by that same process of wrong-instrumentation naiveté.
The Marilyn Manson link reminds me to place Rasputina in their historical context; Melora Creager began playing in Kurt Ralske’s Ultra Vivid Scene in the late ‘80’s, then played cello with Nirvana, on their last European tour in 1994. Rasputina’s drummer (and producer) on their second album, Chris Vrenna was a member of Nine Inch Nails. They toured with Marilyn Manson, Bob Mould, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Porno For Pyros, and surely many other acts of the 90’s and 00’s that Wikipedia doesn’t want to mention. That is to say, they were of the Woodstock 99 generation, but the only track to represent the sexism of those times (if the sense of feminine peril throughout Rasputina’s lyrics doesn’t) is “PJ + Vincent & Matthew + Bjork”, which is a comedic skit about a “repulsive double date” featuring those two artists with a couple of American jocks. Even this representation is not simple, sending up as it does the popular image of each woman, Melora Creager’s competitors in the serious female artist stakes, alongside its critique of the worst parts of the audience.
“PJ + Vincent & Matthew + Bjork” is a short monologue accompanied by music, a form known (in classical music) as the melodrama. Most melodramas on Rasputina’s albums aren’t funny, in fact they can be the most directly dark of the narratives – “Desert Vampire” imagines the career and fate of a child-murderer, “My Captivity by Savages” is grim historical verité that reads like a found text.
The cover of Melanie Safka’s “Brand New Key” on the charmingly titled debut Thanks For The Ether, which recreates the original’s clever arrangement and skipping rope rhythm within the cello instrumentation, brings back a memory. It’s 1972, and I’m a fourteen year old boy, going downtown to the bright lights of Invercargill on Friday night and really hoping to meet a girl (which I never did), and this song is everywhere. And its message (which seems so simple and perfect now) is some inscrutable mystery, but the skipping rope rhythm and Melanie’s voice are saying for all the girls “I am brilliant and annoying, you can never understand me, are you sure that this is what you really want?”
Becoming a man at first instinctively involves rejecting girly things, not digging too deeply into their appeal and its overwhelming, contaminating alienness. On the other hand, Van Der Graaf Generator’s H to He Who Am The Only One is an objectively awesome album, but it’s a safe bet that 95% of its repeat listeners have been male. We hear vocal music through ears tuned in, or out, by our gender and sexuality. There are probably as many variations on this rule as there are people in the universe and days in a lifetime, and no two playlists can ever be the same, but still…
For whatever reason, Rasputina haven’t gotten their due in the revisions of rock history yet: I don’t see their name in my feed, and I should. They persevere – how could they not – with at times a similar limited edition, cottage industry work ethic to Luke Haines’ 2010’s work - an intelligent adaptation to the industrial conditions of the streaming age for an “underground” act. There ought to be a Netflix documentary series and a musical and even a biopic; instead, I can’t find their albums in any of the stores.
There are modern female-led Gothic Rock or dark wave acts that attempt the kind of interplay between light and dark elements that’s special in Rasputina. But – with important exceptions - the modern lyric is often solipsist, derived as it is from emo and trap which are intensely solipsist (as a lot of grunge was, to be fair), and informed by the internet, where the “I’ is omnipresent, rather than book learning, where it has had to take a back seat. It’s as if these acts start with their “A Quitter”, which is often wonderful, but struggle to imbue their later music with the historical or mythic subjectivity that should be its essence.****** This is not surprising – inspired and organized lyrical and musical ability - genius if you like - like Melora Creager’s is by definition an uncommon quality; but there are lessons in it, and they are worth the study.
Here is Winsor Mackay’s 1921 animation of his cartoon strip Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, first published in New York in 1904, with rare Rasputina demos on the sound track; we hear, I think, the influence of Kate Bush more directly here than we do on the albums..
Algorithmic nudge - Vítězslava Kaprálová - Ritornel for Cello and Piano Op.25
* A travelling party in the California goldrush who were cut off by snow in 1846; when it cleared in 1847, the survivors had eaten the rest.
** The fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Mfg. Co. building in New York City in 1911 claimed the lives of 146 employees, mostly young women, because the windows were barred and the doors locked.
*** The cloud of ash produced by the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 travelled round the world and blocked the light from the sun; see Byron’s poem “Darkness”.
**** I’ve liked every Rasputina remix I’ve heard, which is the exact opposite of usual music.
***** In another life Jay Fergusson was a guitarist and singer in the acid rock group Spirit; their 1970 album Twelve Dreams of Doctor Sardonicus, produced by Neil Young’s producer David Briggs, is one of the essential California rock albums.
****** “…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.”
Dan Wohl on Rasputina