For me, seeing Rasputina is like reuniting up with an ex. I adored them during my youth, but time passed and we drifted apart. Yet all it took was one spectacular night to remind me why I loved them in the first place, and to want them in my life again. Unfortunately, they’re already wedded to the goths. And in comparison to those faithful, tenacious lovers I don’t stand a chance at winning Rasputina back.
11 Apr 2004: Ottobar Baltimore
Goth, like any subculture, can be understood as a resistance to the ideals of a hegemonic mainstream culture. And also like any other adolescent subculture, it has been marked by a surplus of style over substance. Briefly in the ‘90s it enjoyed its heyday as the most popular mode of pretending to be anti-establishment. Some of us can still recall high schools posting trenchcoat bans. After the post-Columbine fears came and went quietly, and after Marilyn Manson proved he was just your average rock star who wanted to sleep with actresses, goth went back to being creepy-lame rather than creepy-scary. Goths packed up their black lace and leather ephemera and retreated to their parents’ basement while the musicians who had been willingly or unwillingly been categorized as goth tightened their corsets for the lean years of obscurity ahead.
Such has been the fate of Rasputina. After a moody, inventive major label debut that left them genre limbo, they underwent a goth makeover when Marilyn Manson took over the studio and created a goth remix titled Transylvanian Regurgitations. For a trio of female cellists who sang about tragic fires of yesteryear, vampire courtesans and Howard Hughes, pitching their tent in the goth camp seemed like the thing to do. They released a sophomore album, How We Quit the Forest that followed the style of the remix album much more than their original work. Gone were the somber, sonorous sound of their first album; their cellos disappeared into heavy distortion and echoing electronic drums.
Still, underneath the glossy melodrama Rasputina still possessed their dry wit and clever songwriting. But humor and angst don’t quite mix and after their bid to cash in on the goth craze failed, their label jettisoned them. Singer and primary songwriter Melora Creager didn’t call it quits and instead began producing and recording herself, and the results have been an excellent combination of their original purity and their industrial grit.
None of that fine balance disappears in their live performance. With one third of the cello trio replaced by an excellent drummer, Rasputina nimbly leaped through every phase of their repertoire and throwing in a significant number of covers that might be gimmicky if they weren’t such stellar reinterpretations of classic songs.
Their bricolage fashion sense shares many of the same tastes as goths. Like goths, they dress like confused Victorians, with their corsets strapped on the outside of their dresses, and drummer Jonathan TeBeest resembles an Amish farmer down on his luck. But as they took the stage, it was easy to notice that neither Creager nor Zoe Keating wore a swatch of black, choosing instead mostly white for their corrupted classical ensembles.
This pastiche aesthetic drives their set list as well. They can jump from “Howard Hughes”, a swirling tour de force from their first record, to the click-clack pop of “Antique High Heel Red Doll Shoes”, a number just begging to become a club hit. Their ability to dispense with any hint of irony allows them to submerse themselves in “Rose K.”, a touching song about a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s that Creager admitted was almost too difficult to perform live.
Rasputina’s covers make up an important part of their catalog. They’ve released several EPs dedicated to covers, usually focusing on classic rock hits such as Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” but occasionally veering off into the surprising, elegant “Fox in the Snow”, originally by Belle & Sebastian. Creager’s voice can jump in from sophisticated and hushed to bawdy and operatic. Whereas she reserves the former usually for her originals, she puts the latter to good use in her bombastic versions of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘n Roll” and Heart’s “Barracuda”. These songs proved just how hard two seated women in floorlength dresses can rock, and gave TeBeest, who generally let his playing support the strings, a chance to show off his chops.
Creager’s between-song banter carries the same mellifluous tone as her lyrics, so much so that it almost seemed scripted. After one heckler called out for more originals, she sweetly informed him that the last song they had played actually was an original, but so good he couldn’t tell.
I don’t blame him for the mistake. Their originals employ a mix of the classic rock and classical references, such as the new track “High on Life” or the classic “Mr. Little Shirtwaist Fire”. The band isn’t above going for the laugh, however, through the smart use of the sort of syrupy schmaltz that strings usually bring to pop music. A track from their new album “If Your Kisses Can’t Hold The Man You Love” could easily have been mistaken as an original, with its chugging, punk rock chorus, but Creager instead admitted that had been written during the 1920s. It only sounded new, she explained, because she doesn’t sing the line that goes “I slid down the copper pipe.”
It’s unfortunate for Rasputina that they seem to have reached their true potential only after their brief moment of near stardom had passed. Even worse, they allowed themselves to be fit into an already fading genre. At this point, goth culture has returned to its roots and its meager membership of high school outsiders. Manson appears on Page Six only when he gives someone an engagement ring. They still might enjoy a solid, dedicated fanbase, but bands such as Rasputina can have little hope for crossing over to a larger audience after being tagged as the soundtrack to a shunned subculture. It may be bad for them, but it’s an even greater loss to us living closer to the mainstream.
// Notes from the Road
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