Rasputina’s Melora Creager has one of the most unique and commanding vocal presences of any in the last twenty years of popular music. An unsettling combination of piercing trill and banshee wail, she undoubtedly has the range and ability to generate great power or beauty with her voice, but far more often she can be found pushing it in the direction of a pitch that is likely make your household pets’ fur stand on end. It is the kind of technique that could quickly prove wearying, and certainly after nearly two decades of Rasputina albums, she has certainly given listeners ample time to tire of it. What it really does, though, is help provide her band with a quality not usually associated with music: the ability to create actual suspense. It is there in the band’s louder, showier moments, where Creager’s voice already sounds a little too close to the edge of hysteria for comfort, but even more so in their quieter moods, where the restraint is never quite able to settle into a genuine sense of calm, like those scenes in horror movies where you just know that a big, loud jump-scare is just around the corner.
Creager could likely place her vocals in any number of appropriate musical settings, from epic metal to acoustic folk, to great effect, but the music she does choose to back herself up with adds greatly to an already pervasive sense of unease. Actually, classifying her music as anything as benign as a “back up” probably does it a disservice, as her singular brand of cello-driven rock music would easily be idiosyncratic enough to upstage anything else about the music were it not for Creager’s own authoritative front-and-center stance. Furthermore, lest the mention of cellos in this context conjure up images of some kind of polite chamber pop, Creager employs her lineup to its most menacing and visceral potential, utilizing the instrument far more for its deep insectoid groans rather than its mood-setting atmosphere. Not for nothing did Kurt Cobain tap her instrumental talents for Nirvana tours back in the day.
Sister Kinderhook, the seventh Rasputina album, finds Creager continuing to explore her baroque-pop niche long after many would have thought its potential had been long exhausted. Creager, though, remains as committed to her craft as ever, both in terms of her manipulation of the cello-based format and her lyrics, which maintain a striking continuity with the nature of the music with narratives typically set in the fairly distant past, and usually in the more obscure corners of history at that. Here, she gives us an enraged rant on the anti-rent wars of 19th century New York (“Calico Indians”), a retelling of a European legend of a feral child (“Snow-Hen of Austerlitz”), a speculative ancestral history on the subject of an early American portraitist (“The 2 Miss Leavens”) and not one but two songs (“Sweet Sister Temperance”, “This, My Porcelain Life”) inspired by the writings of Emily Dickinson. If nothing else, Creager’s lyrics can at least accurately be described as educational.
Still, it is exactly this historical fetishism that highlights what is alternately endearing and alienating about Creager’s music. On a song like “Snow-Hen of Austerlitz,” her approach is warmly empathetic, playing more like a tragic character sketch than a history lesson. The easy entry point that the listener is afforded into the material here is refreshing, andSister Kinderhook could use several more moments that are this emotionally accessible. Elsewhere, as on the complex “The 2 Miss Leavens”, Creager impresses with her ability to spin a detailed story out of distant artifacts, but her obsessive eye for nuance and oddity can just as often have the effect of trapping her subjects under glass rather than figuring out what makes them tick. When she fails to find a human angle on a subject as charged as the landlords vs. serfs skirmish at the heart of “Calico Indians”, for example, her songwriting (“the Feudal land laws must be abolished!”, goes one particularly unsubtle lyric) occasionally results in that old creative writing no-no of showing rather than telling.
Yet it is hard to be too picky about the occasional stumble when Creager has made a remarkable career out of constantly working at such a high level of ambition and innovation. Harder, still, when an album sounds as good as Sister Kinderhook consistently does, ranging from the dramatic rumble of “Humankind as a Sailor” to the winding melody of “My Night Sky” and the creeping bass tones of “Kinderhook Hoopskirt Works.” The album’s best moment, however, ends up creating yet another common paradox that goes along with listening to Rasputina. “Holocaust of Giants”, not only delivers its fanciful (its lyrics suppose an ancient race of giants whose constant warring among their own ranks lead to their extinction), if didactic (“they slaughtered one another in a meaningless war / thank your lucky stars that we don’t do that anymore”, in case you missed the point) narrative with genuine conviction, but manages to craft a legitimately driving and forceful rock song out of its odd elements, the aggressive shards of cello and Creager’s unhinged vocals combining to create a thrilling sense of forward momentum. For as much as Rasputina’s ornate, compelling fusion of antiquity with pop music is never boring, “Holocaust of Giants” nevertheless provides the kind of instant gratification that, once experienced, it is all too easy to want more of. No one comes to Rasputina for compromise, to be sure, but when Melora Creager throws us the occasional bone like this, its hard not to wish she would spoil us just a bit more.