As a resident of the Mile High City, it always excites me to see a Denver band do fairly well in the music biz. With Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the Samples, and the Apples in Stereo being some of our only big-time exports, it’s not like Colorado has exactly been known as a hotbed of musical talent, even though some very talented bands exist in the Denver area (anyone who mentions Kip Winger gets kicked in the head). So the fact that Denver’s own Hemi Cuda has been slowly making headway in terms of attention from critics and fans, especially following in the wake of their recent release, Classics for Lovers, on the Pop Sweatshop label.
Hemi Cuda is a female duo whose music and image matches the car which gives them their name. With a collection of matching wigs in hot pink, electric blue, or ghostly white, they take the stage in costumes notable for their hooker-vamp mini-skirts and thigh-high leather fetish boots. Cars, sex, drugs, violence and macho movie stars are the inhabitants of their songs, delivered in straight, three-chord, distorted rock-n-roll. Think punk rock delivered by the babes in a My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult video without all that distracting techno. Part L7, part the Donnas, and part Social Distortion, these ladies (and drummer Scott Padawer) are out to play gritty, sexy rock and they deliver.
Unfortunately, what Hemi Cuda has in abundance of style and image, they lack in actual substance. Most of the songs on Classics for Lovers never deviate from predictable chord strumming and rhythms. Melodies and key changes are the exception here. Instead, the music tries to sell itself through its attitude, and while it’s fun, tough, a little campy, and a lot naughty, it doesn’t sustain itself for long enough. For the most part lead vocalist and guitarist Anika Zappe’s voice comes across as a snottier version of Nina Gordon or Tanya Donnelly. It fits the mood and the attitude of punk chic clit rock, but it’s hardly dynamic. Only on songs like “After School Special”, where Zappe and bassist Karen Exley go for melodic vocals and actual harmonies do things get any better. Exley’s bass is also frequently buried in distortion, making it little more than an instrument of guitar feedback, and the few tracks that feature any clear bass lines sound that much better because of it.
Yet there’s still something . . . well . . . charming about Hemi Cuda, even though Zappe and Exley are the anti-christ of charm-school girls. On the epnoymously titled lead off track, it’s hard not to smile as they shout through the chorus “Hemi . . . Fuckin’ . . . Cuda!” Tracks like “Do What I Please”, “Don’t Start” and “Atomic Runner” create the B-movie atmosphere of highway killers in muscle cars, while the masturbatory ode to a movie classic in “Cool Hand Luke” hits all the right in-your-face buttons of female sexuality. In their most Social D-inspired moment, Hemi Cuda deliver a bluesy love affair with drugs and drink in “Fucked Up”, and although that and “Cool Hand Luke” are located at the end of the album, they just might be the best songs on the disc.
Most of these songs were written in 1999 and were developed over 2000. After three years of writing and performing, it’s difficult to say, based on Classics for Lovers alone, whether or not Hemi Cuda will ever emerge as a more accomplished band. In the instance of “After School Special” on this album, Hemi Cuda slow things down a bit and deliver a serious song that verges on being a love ballad. It’s among the best tracks on the album, but it also feels the most out of place. So the question becomes, can they become “serious musicians” without sacrificing the wild party theme? It’s hard to say. One difficulty may be that Hemi Cuda’s act works better live than recorded, something that such an image-heavy band may never be able to overcome.
As representatives of the Denver musical scene, Hemi Cuda are fairly unique, but they’re certainly not the great band that will have all eyes on this city. However, touring with other female rock bands or opening for acts like GWAR, Hemi Cuda will certainly amuse and entertain anyone who buys a ticket to attend their shows. My best advice is to see them live and then decide whether or not Classics for Lovers is for you.